Many of you who know me have often heard me say that one big problem I intend to have WomenUp tackle is the problem of unconscious gender bias. I hope to inspire each of you to commit to both starting the conversation about this important issue and pointing out this unconscious bias when you see it around you. I know that speaking up can be scary, particularly in the workplace, but change cannot come without bringing this issue to the forefront. I also believe in this time of “Times Up” and “Me Too” that it is the safest time – when we are most likely to be heard to date.
Forbes Magazine ran a story in December of 2016 entitled “Think You’re Not Biased Against Women At Work? Read This” (written by Tiffany Pham and Natasha Birnbaum.) The article reported that a Harvard’s global online research study, which included over 200,000 participants, showed that 76% of people (men and women) are gender-biased and tend to think of men as better suited for careers and women as better suited as homemakers. Its hard to believe these biases continue in spite of the significant advancements women have made in the workplace in the last several decades. Don’t get me wrong – we have a ways to go. Nevertheless, this statistic floored me.
The articles continues as follows:
Let’s look at more ways women are held back.
According to the Women in the Workplace study by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Co., for every 100 women promoted to manager positions, 130 men are promoted. In fact, women only account for 18% of C-Level employees currently, and women of color hold only 3% of C-Suite positions. Why is that? Perhaps because, according to the same study, women ask for feedback as often as men do, but are less likely to receive it; they also have less access to senior leaders overall. Women also negotiate just as often as men do, but face pushback and are then labeled bossy or aggressive. Sheryl Sandberg recently described how a freelance film director called out bias before it could even surface. The director walked into her negotiation armed and, ready with her pitch and stats, began by declaring, “I want to say upfront that I’m going to negotiate, and the research shows that you’re going to like me less when I do.”
Not only are women less likely to be promoted to manager positions, but the trend gains momentum incrementally as they climb the ladder. And yet, study after study shows that female leaders tend to be better leaders than their male counterparts. At every single level of the corporate ladder, women are rated as better overall leaders than men by peers, bosses, direct reports and colleagues. What is even more interesting is that when such findings are shared with women, they believe what makes them great leaders is that they are not complacent and continuously try to outdo themselves and prove themselves and are therefore more keen to take feedback to heart. In one such survey a participant said, “We need to work harder than men to prove ourselves,” while another explained, “We feel the constant pressure to never make a mistake, and to continually prove our value to the organization.”
Behind all of these studies, articles, and opinion pieces is the clarity that gender diversity needs to become a priority. Why? Well, there is now more than ever quantitative data proving the value of diversity from a bottom line perspective. Women make 41% of purchasing decisions and women-owned businesses have a huge impact on our economy. Women control trillions of dollars of wealth and influence more than 85% of retail decisions. The US alone could add up to more than $4 trillion in annual GDP in 2025 if women attain full gender equality, according to The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in the United States, MGI. In fact, companies with greater gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.
How then can we overcome unconscious biases and ensure companies include women in the decision-making?
You can be biased about just about anything—not just gender, race or age, but also things like communication style or what someone does in their free time. And of course, you can also be biased against your own gender. Women review other female executives differently due to unconscious biases, for example. And a woman’s unconscious beliefs can even cause her to hold herself back; for instance a woman may assume she needs to take on more masculine characteristics to succeed in a leadership role.
When we start to be more self-aware and bring these biases to greater awareness, we are better able to create more inclusive cultures, where individuals feel they can be themselves at work and thus more fully engage as part of their teams and in their assignments. By gathering more contributions and ideas, companies become more innovative and are better able to create more appropriate solutions for their increasing user and client bases, especially as they expand globally. Overall, this creates a more collaborative, inclusive and competitive company.
Providing female employees with mentors within their organizations can also be extremely impactful, building the support and guidance needed to help combat these biases. By sharing experiences, issues, ways of dealing with bias when they pop up, mentorship relationships really shine through and keep employees engaged and active in the team and company.
Finally, outwardly facing, offering unconscious bias trainings and mentorship programs can be equally important to brand your workplace as a female-friendly and supportive environment. The more a company can communicate this and, of course, create initiatives and benefits in support of female executives, the more it will gain. Women for the most part crave flexibility, closer workplace relationships and less hierarchical structures, so steps towards making your culture work better for women will also make it better for the organization overall and the future of your workforce.
Tiffany Pham and Natasha Birnbaum are experts in unconscious bias, training top companies worldwide through the award-winning platform Mogul.
So – I ask that each of you commit to taking one action in this next month to help make a change in your own workplace to bring attention to the issue of unconscious gender bias. One thing I know for sure (to quote a wise woman), we, as women, can change anything we put our minds to. Here’s beginning the conversation to change the unconscious bias that makes that playing field just that much more uneven. We are a force of change. WomenUp intends to be a leader in starting the necessary conversations to make that change a reality.
Ilene Goldstein Block