“Well, she’s qualified—but what if she leaves to pop out a couple babies?”
That’s a real sentence Alyson DeNardo, a partner at California-based venture capitalist firm M Ventures, heard from a former male colleague during a hiring search for a senior-level position. “My blood was boiling,” she tells me. “My response was, ‘That happens all the time; then you give her maternity leave.’”
Whether or not you’ve encountered similar issues—perhaps heard a woman being put down for having opinions, or for being “bossy” or “bitchy,” or had her achievements minimized for any other reason—trust that gender bias is a present and pervasive workplace fixture in 2019. And evidence to this point abounds.
A 2018 study of 1,150 participants found people were less likely to refer a female to a job opening when the description emphasized intellectual ability. In fact, when a job description mentioned “brilliance,” participants were 25.3 percent less likely to recommend a woman for the role versus when that word was left out.
A recent Lancet study showed similar results. The study authors looked at 24,000 scientific grant applications to see how men and women were funded for their respective research. The authors found that when the scientific ideas were evaluated, men and women were equally likely to receive a grant. But when the promise or talent of the scientist was considered, men were 1.4 times as likely to receive the money.
And while the problem is systemic, acknowledgement of it isn’t necessarily objective. According to a University of Cambridge study of nearly 6,000 employees in the United Kingdom, around 74 percent of female workers surveyed said their workplace culture presented barriers to advancement for women. Some 53 percent of women reported seeing female colleagues judged more negatively than their male peers. And just 18 percent of men noticed the same thing.
“Most people don’t think of themselves overtly as being gender-biased, though they probably recognize their biases at some level,” —psychologist Art Markman, PhD
So since it’s not the presence of gender bias that’s up for debate, looking for instances of it isn’t nearly as important as being empowered to take meaningful steps in response to seeing it in action. “Reducing bias in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility,” says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of Bring Your Brain to Work. “People cannot bring their best selves to work if they feel like the workplace is biased against them.”
Let’s say you’re on a hiring committee, and one of your colleagues wonders aloud if a female candidate has thick enough skin to be on this specific team. Or maybe a co-worker implies you’re less committed to your work because you’re a mom. “The first time you hear someone say something that concerns you at work, it is worth having a conversation with that person in privacy,” says Dr. Markman. “It can be embarrassing to call someone out in public, and they may not realize the impact of what they said on others. You’re likely to get the best reaction if you have a discussion.”
He suggests angling your approach to “focus on their actions, not their motives” for best results. “Most people don’t think of themselves overtly as being gender-biased, though they probably recognize their biases at some level,” Dr. Markman says. “So, just talk about what they said and how it made you feel.” Promote more awareness.
Communicating clearly and directly regarding pros and cons is also important, says Majo Molfino, a leadership coach based in Los Angeles. “You can say, ‘I love how you did X, but I wasn’t okay with Y, because I felt Z, and value a psychologically safe workplace,’” she says, as an example. “Follow up the conversation via email so you have documentation in case you need to escalate it to your manager or HR.” In fact, she says to keep a record of all traceable communication, including text, direct messages, and any other applicable forms.
But if you’re not ready to confront an issue face to face, even in private, you’re not without options. First, echoing Dr. Markman’s point about people often being unaware of their biases, Molfino suggests providing the benefit of the doubt that the people with whom you take issue can be holistically good though their behaviors may not be. “A lot of gender bias is unconscious, and even though it isn’t right, and even though the impact is severe, the intention is often not malicious.” To this point, circulating information like Google’s gender bias training may be helpful for colleagues who aren’t necessarily aware of their damaging even if not intentional behaviors.
If the subtle-yet-serious approach doesn’t work, it’s key to confront the situation directly with your words. And if that fails, and your efforts haven’t had any effect on the bias in your office, start taking it up the chain. “The first place you need to go is to your direct manager or supervisor,” says Molfino. “They should be able to have a conversation with the individual or with the individual’s manager. Remember to always keep good documentation in case the situation escalates to HR.”
And, DeNardo is quick to remind, the situation of getting HR involved doesn’t need to reflect the intimidating bad rap so many assign to it. In fact, reporting these instances is important and shouldn’t necessarily be a last resort or something to avoid. “People are afraid to go to HR, but they really should,” she says. “Oftentimes, it doesn’t have to be so serious. If it helps to be more informal, you can send a Slack message to HR or shoot them a quick note asking them to grab coffee outside the office and away from the environment.”
But, on a proactive rather than reactive level, how can this stop? Sure, being a woman who commands a presence and is preemptive in her professional actions—like by crossing a room to shake a hand—may help. But, let’s be honest: That’s BS and will change nothing on a macro level. In fact, it may only normalize the subconsciously held understanding that in order to advance, a woman must do more, that she must prove herself through performative measures that many men need not worry about on constant basis.
Rather, reach out to other women in the same field, or even in the same office. Recent research published in PNAS concluded that women need more than well-placed professional connections; a community of advocates who can share support and insider information, like whether or not a company treats women well, prioritizes gender diversity, and respects female leaders is also key for thriving. “I think having a women’s support group at work, or outside of work, to talk about these issues and working within the patriarchy is super-helpful,” says Molfino.
And, no need to regard this as a whisper network. By vocalizing these opinions and experiences, in time, companies and workplaces and policies will be forced to acknowledge gender bias and lay groundwork for the landscape to change—both in terms of systemic discrimination and unconscious bias.