Women at Work: How to handle gender bias in the workplace head on

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If you feel you are discriminated in the workplace due to your gender, you may be right. Here's how to combat gender bias in the workplace and beyond.

The world is changing at an exhilarating pace. As frightening as it is to witness so much (unconscious and conscious) gender bias, it is energizing to see the response. Those who are persecuted are standing up and speaking out. And those who seek to be allies are making noise too.

It's scary to speak up, even as a communication coach who loves to get loud. But change is hard and messy. I see it daily with clients who are changing lifelong communication behaviors. And we are seeing it globally as well. We saw it as millions of women and allies took to the streets in pink hats. We saw it when Tammy Duckworth was the first U.S. Senator to bring her infant to work rather than sacrificing her vote.  We see you saying #MeToo and #TimesUp. And it's not just self-identified women who are speaking out. Nothing is more powerful than words meeting action.

And we're seeing it in corporate America. 

Fed up with blatant sexual harassment and gender discrimination, the women at Nike banded together and are in the midst of a revolt: "While the #MeToo movement has led to the downfall of individual men, the kind of sweeping overhaul that is occurring at Nike is rare in the corporate world, and illustrates how internal pressure from employees is forcing even huge companies to quickly address workplace problems."

We are no longer willing to sit by and bear witness to bias—unconscious or not. Forget about shattering the glass ceiling or getting a seat at the table. Women across the globe are rejecting business constructs built for men altogether. Thankfully, allies are standing up and making our fight stronger. But, what do you do if you want to change the system from the inside? Get into the old boys' club of a predominantly male industry? Continue to climb the corporate latter? How do you move the needle without losing a part of yourself?  

Take a look around you

We don't need studies to tell us that gender discrimination is worse in workplaces that are mostly male. But we also know that gender bias does not only come from male colleagues. Look around for others who may be experiencing bias and think intersectionally. Identify your allies and know that they may not always be who you expect them to be. It is key to have allies you can speak openly with about these issues.

Take a stand

You are passed over for a promotion because you just had a baby. You successfully retain a client but are then not invited to the intake meeting. You're criticized for being "ambitious." And you think it's your fault. It is still a struggle to be in the midst of these interactions and not blame ourselves. If you are unsure, #FlipItToTestIt. If it still seems unfair when you put a man in your shoes, it is probably gender bias. It is necessary to talk to others about your experience in order to see it for what it really is—unadulterated bias.  Even when you recognize it, you need people outside of yourself to remind you.  Speaking openly with your allies allows you to identify gender bias and give it a name.

Take a breath

First, consider if the bias is conscious or unconscious. Whatever you decide, it is still not okay. But it can give you an idea of how to proceed. Preconceived notions take time and recognition to change. We know that women who negotiate are 30% more likely to be deemed bossy, aggressive and intimidating. Men’s voices are perceived as more persuasive, fact-based, and logical than women’s voices, even when reading identical pitches.

If you are unsure of the root of the bias, bring it to the offender's attention. Only do this if the power dynamic allows for such open conversation. Avoid "You" statements ("You are being discriminatory"). Instead, ask a question.  Something like, "Did you know that women are disproportionately discriminated against for being ambitious?" Cite case studies and science, if you can. Frame it in a way that benefits other women at the company, not just you. This helps you avoid making it personal.

Take action

Whether or not you work in an outwardly hostile environment, it's helpful to have practices in place so there is a procedure to combat bias when it happens. This can be established from above through company-wide training or you and your allies can integrate this on your own. Think of the Obama staffers who used a technique called amplification to make sure that their female co-workers received credit for their ideas. Another example is knowing ahead of time where to report the behavior in a way that avoids retaliation against you. Banding together with your allies and proactively integrating techniques specific to your work environment will speed up the process.

Take the power

Corporate America is abuzz with brand new Diversity & Inclusion practices, but in many cases, the people in charge are still white straight men. In order to close the wage gap, it is essential to promote women, but as of late last year, female leadership was below 50% in all industries surveyed, "and in some fields, like energy and mining or manufacturing, representation of women is far lower, with women holding fewer than 20% of leadership positions."

LinkedIn put this into practice a number of years ago by deciding to "rethink talent acquisition, focus on developing talented women already at the company, and implement unconscious-bias training."

"The main lesson is this," Mike Gamson, LinkedIn's senior vice president of global solutions wrote in a blog post. "If you are a male leader at a fast-growing company and don't deliberately hire for a diverse workforce from the beginning, eventually most of your hires and leaders are going to be much like you. In fact, probably too much like you because the default position of hiring is to tap your friends, and friends of friends who are likely to look, think, act and speak like you, and who often come from similar backgrounds."

Take the stage

Speaking up for ourselves and each other is new for many of us. Many of us have never practiced using our voices in this way.  We need a safe space to practice speaking up, out and back. Join us on June 4th at New Women Space for a workshop to help self-identified women speak their power. We will help you empower your unique voice, assert your space, and stop apologizing for what you deserve in this new boundary-pushing communication workshop. Sign up early since space is incredibly limited for this donation-based event.