While we’re often quick to give ourselves a collective pat on the back for how far we’ve come in promoting equality, there’s still a long way to go. Despite tremendous strides over the past few decades, gender bias remains embedded in our workplace culture. The us versus them mentality is alive and well in today’s corporate landscape. To make matters worse, gender bias usually happens on a very nuanced level — making it difficult to recognize.
Consider these facts:
- For every 100 men promoted to manager positions, 79 women are; this creates a gap in the talent pipeline. Men hold 62 percent of management positions, while women hold only 38 percent, according to McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace.
- 46 percent of LGBTQ workers remain closeted at work, according to a 2018 Human Rights Campaign Foundation survey, only four percent fewer than the 50 percent reported in 2008. One in five LGBTQ workers has been told or have had coworkers imply that they should dress in a more masculine or feminine manner.
- A survey of performance reviews received by men and women in tech revealed that 58.9 percent of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback, compared to 87.9 percent of the reviews received by women — regardless of the gender of the person giving the review. Furthermore, the type of critical feedback men and women received was different. While the feedback men received focused on developing additional skills, the feedback women received focused on negative personality traits, like being “too abrasive,” “too bossy” or “too judgmental.”
As a leader, what can you do to advocate for equality in the workplace?
1. Admit it
Gender bias isn’t a thing of the past. We can laugh and shake our heads as we watch MadMen’s Don Draper blatantly cross the line in his treatment of women, but pretending that that gender bias no longer exists is naïve. The unconscious bias that prevails in our culture permeates the workplace. Acknowledging any beast is the first step in conquering it.
If you’re a white male in the corporate world, you probably view the world through the lens of a white male—without giving it a second thought. The same holds true if you’re an African American woman, or a member of the LGBTQ community. In order to eliminate gender bias in the workplace, both sides of the issue need to develop a keen awareness of how it feels to be on the other side. Empathy, one step deeper than sympathy, involves putting yourself in another’s shoes and viewing the world through the other person’s lens. When leaders imagine how it feels to experience a conversation or event through a different perspective, it breeds understanding, encourages flexibility and inspires innovation.
3. Give credit where credit is due
Stealing anyone’s thunder is offensive, yet it happens all too often in workplace environments where gender bias is accepted. Bucking that trend is one way that leaders can not only promote gender equality, but also earn trust. Dina (not her real name), a female executive at a global advertising agency, recently relayed this story to me:
“The subtle gender bias cues that happen in meetings are discouraging enough but when a client or coworker outwardly ignores a woman’s contribution at the table only to give a man, making the same point, all the credit, enrages me.
I’ve experienced this many times but one that comes to mind happened at a very high level executive meeting with a Fortune 500 global brand. Commanding full attention of the room, my male superior (at the time) made the exact same point I had minutes earlier. The client readily agreed with his insight as I quietly raged inside. He then added ‘Hey, this isn’t my idea, it’s what Dina said five minutes ago.’ Those few words not only turned the situation into a learning example for the clients; it also made me trust that he would always have my back.”
4. Become an “insider”
There is no better way to learn a foreign language than by immersing yourself in another culture. When you visit another country and stay in an Americanized hotel, eating Americanized food, speaking Americanized English, you only experience a hint of that country’s true way of life. By contrast, when you stay with a host family, you’re exposed to the native language, food and customs. That’s when you get a true taste of a new culture.
Eliminating gender bias in the workplace is impossible without understanding what it’s like to be on the other side. Ask if you can attend special-interest group meetings and networking events. Listen to their conversations … their challenges … their concerns.
5. Engage in authentic conversations
Because we’ve all been so strongly cautioned against saying the wrong thing, we often say nothing. But avoidance doesn’t facilitate progress. While there are legal lines a leader can never cross, asking questions that pertain to workplace policy can open the door to progress. It’s perfectly acceptable — and likely well appreciated — to ask questions like:
- What can we do differently in our hiring process to attract more women applicants?
- How can we encourage more LGBTQ employees to feel comfortable and empowered to come out in the workplace?
- How can we make sure our offsite social events are gender-neutral?
Related: The Cost of Avoiding Crucial Conversations
6. Be transparent
By nature, people tend to reject things they don’t understand. And while we’ve come a long way in the past couple of decades, ignorance remains. Leaders can help dispel rumors and faulty assumptions by bringing in an expert to educate.
Dina describes another experience that happened under her leadership watch: “A transgender team member was taking time off for surgery. We knew people would be curious and have many questions we wouldn’t be able to answer effectively or they would be too embarrassed to ask. With her approval, the agency’s LGBTQ task force brought in a Trans Activist expert to field any and all questions from other co-workers. That transparency built a stronger, more open and welcoming team for her to come back to. Because I had witnessed a similar situation many years ago — but one where the coworker was so shamed and ridiculed that she quit and moved to another state — I was determined to help make this a positive experience all around.”
Leaders who promote gender equality — one conversation, one meeting or one performance review at a time — will find that their efforts collectively move the needle toward a culture of inclusion and equality. These become the organizations that attract and retain top talent. Cultural change happens when we refuse to accept the status quo. As more and more leaders take steps to eliminate gender bias, the status quo will continue to shift in the right direction.
I recently spoke to Forbes Magazine about my journey as a LGBTQ woman entrepreneur and how being gay helped me launch my business 23 years ago and shape it into what it is today.