As this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, #BreakTheBias highlights the need to combat gender bias in all aspects of life. Bias can materialize in many ways, but specifically for women working in STEM industries, it can be a barrier to entry. In turn, this can lead to a staff shortage that costs businesses up to £1.5 billion a year in recruitment – the result of temporary staffing, inflated salaries, and additional training costs.
You may have heard of the term ‘gender bias’, but do you really understand what it is or how it can materialize in the workplace? This article will explore real-life examples and common types of gender bias that women experience at work. It will also provide practical tips on how businesses, leaders, and employees can take steps to tackle this bias, regardless of their gender.
What is Gender Bias?
It is important for every workplace to provide a safe and inclusive environment, with everyone encouraged to take responsibility for combating bias. While there are many allies of gender equality speaking out against the ‘bad behavior’ they encounter, sadly, it is not uncommon for gender bias to creep into everyday conversations – often unconsciously.
Here are a few examples of biased comments that fellow women in tech have been told since starting their careers in the Salesforce industry:
- “A career in IT is difficult to pursue – the job is extremely hard, especially for women.”
- “You can work for very long hours, and it’s difficult for girls to work for 10, 12 hours.”
- “Make sure you are smiling when the recording starts.”
And it’s not just loaded remarks like these that women have to contend with. Gender bias in the workplace can have a tangible impact on productivity and engagement, as well as promotion and hiring decisions.
When asking our network of female coworkers, customers, and friends for anecdotes of their own experiences, we were inundated with examples, such as:
“When I suggest a direction or solution, that will be ignored or there will be low enthusiasm to the idea from the people present. However, when a male coworker repeated the same thought or strategy, even though they were more junior than myself, the room erupts in praise for their helpful input.”
Discounting effort, especially over a long period of time, would be demotivating to any employee. Let’s be honest, if this frequently happened to you, after a while, would you even bother to speak up?
We wouldn’t either.
That’s probably why, according to LeanIn.org, it’s been proven that “employees on diverse teams are more committed and work harder”. Furthermore, “companies with more women in leadership have more generous employee policies and produce better business results”. Yet PwC cited that only “5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women”.
By combating bias, promoting diversity, and increasing the number of women in leadership positions, businesses can improve performance.
Types of Gender Bias
So what exactly is the bias that we are dealing with here?
Here are a few of the most common types of bias that women experience in the workplace:
This is rooted in traditional gender roles – women are expected to be more agreeable (hence, they are told to smile) and pay a penalty for coming across as ‘assertive’, whereas this can be seen as a desirable trait for men in the workplace.
This describes the tendency to underestimate women’s performances and overestimate men’s. This is similar to attribution bias when women receive less credit (and less likely to receive promotions and pay rises) for their accomplishments than their male counterparts. The quotes mentioned earlier in this post are an archetypal example of outdated performance and attribution bias.
Also called ‘the motherhood penalty’, this describes when pregnant women or women with children are seen as less committed to their careers, and are therefore overlooked for challenging tasks, opportunities, or promotions. This also materializes when team building activities are organized during ‘school run’ hours.
This term is used in neuropsychology to describe a type of selection or confirmation bias and the way we subconsciously gravitate towards people who are similar to ourselves. This can have a particular impact on hiring decisions, when a perfectly qualified candidate might miss out on job opportunities by not being ‘the right cultural fit’.
Many women do not experience just one area of bias. Prejudice exists across multiple areas, such as religion, race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, age, appearance, or even socio-economic background. Therefore, gender bias can occur simultaneously with other forms of bias. For example, a black woman’s experience of gender bias may be different to a white woman’s experience; to a muslim woman’s experience; to a disabled woman’s experience; to a middle class woman’s experience; and so on.
Tips for Tackling Gender Bias
Now that we know what gender bias is and how it can materialize in the workplace, how can we take steps to tackle it as both employees and business leaders?
1. Promote a culture of inclusivity
This would be the first step to combat bias on an organizational level. It’s imperative for business leaders to champion inclusivity. By acting as executive sponsors, leaders can ingrain diversity, inclusion, and equity into company values, and communicate to employees that this culture shift is being prioritized.
2. Provide training
By educating employees on gender bias in the workplace, their understanding of its origins and awareness of its foundations will increase. This will enable them to recognize, discuss, and equip themselves with the appropriate methods to address instances when they occur. LeanIn.org provides a free digital program which enables companies to challenge workplace bias through workshops, group activities, and discussions. This tool is used by organizations such as SurveyMonkey and Fossil Group.
3. Enable leaders to be part of the change
Ensure that middle management is made accountable for driving the change so that employees understand the values, can partake in training, and are encouraged to become mentors and allies. By establishing a culture of mentorship and allyship between employees and leaders, women will feel more supported in situations where bias can occur. They will also feel more engaged and will experience further opportunities for exposure and recognition in their careers.
4. Challenge bias in the moment
This is something all employees can partake in, regardless of superiority. Calling out instances of gender bias or microaggressions on an individual level can make for awkward and often difficult conversations. However, doing so brings the unconscious into the conscious, promotes dialogue, and builds a safe space where people can speak freely – even if this includes the ability (and safety) to provide feedback and/or anonymous complaints about bad behaviors.
5. Establish objective criteria for promotion, pay, and hiring decisions
Review the words used in job descriptions and remove any gendered pronouns and adjectives with gendered connotations, such as ‘dominant’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘decisive’ – these may put women off due to past experiences of bias.
Next, define, document, and communicate criteria for evaluating qualifications and performance. Make criteria totally clear and transparent so that it can be adhered to, removing room for unconscious biases to influence decisions. If criteria isn’t clear, blind performance evaluations may be the solution, as these have consistently been proven to increase female representation in psychological studies.
To truly break the bias in any organization, it takes both a top-down approach from executive leadership, and a conscious choice from individuals to notice and act on their own unconscious biases and others’ microaggressions. With a concerted effort across all levels, businesses will benefit from happier employees and improved business results.
The tech industry is a great environment to work in for many reasons, but there are plenty of practical steps we can all take to make it more inclusive for everyone.
For more actionable tips on how to #BreakTheBias, or if you are working in the tech industry and would like more free advice on how to overcome workplace bias, visit Verve Women to join our community.
You can also join the conversation by posting your ‘Break the Bias’ poses on social media, using the hashtags #BreakTheBias and #ChannelYourVerve and tagging @vervewomenuk on Instagram.