How to Avoid Subtle Gender Bias

We all know that having more women in leadership positions for a large (and even small to medium) business helps improve its bottom line. However, few of us really grasp the subtle, cultural, gender bias taking place that prevent women from achieving (and retaining) these roles. Why should we care? Because while progress exists, in many companies, we still see few women in leadership roles and fewer women than men getting promoted. This blog outlines some pointers for noting and removing gender bias in the workplace.

Delegate Tasks Equally.

At work, do you find that men (and women) tend to ask you to do unnoticeable favors diverting you from more high-profile tasks? If so, you’re not alone. When writing and reporting the recent cover story for the Tepper magazine, I learned of compelling research showing that women tend to say yes to more favors (i.e. non-promotable tasks) at work versus men and becoming distracted with these favors can interfere with advancing a woman’s career. The research also found both women (and men) tend to expect women to say yes to favors more than they do for men. And while others don’t view men unfavorably when they decline non-promotional tasks (and in fact view them favorably when they say “yes”) the opposite occurs with women.

How do we avoid the pattern?

  • Become mindful of who we delegate tasks too (i.e. evenly divide the tasks between men and women).
  • Think of people who could truly benefit from serving on a committee or attending a conference, such as a newer employee.
  • Analyze (and understand) why we tend to say yes. What motivates women to not say no?
  • Support (and coach) one another to politely decline the ask. We will gain another opportunity. We won’t offend the person who asked. We may not wing it, no matter how hard we try. (The “I Just Can’t Say No Club” emerged around this phenomenon.


Give Out Equally Challenging Roles (and Honest Feedback, Too).

When interviewing women leaders, I consistently hear the biggest growth in their career comes from a taxing role. Yahoo’s premier, Marissa Mayer, famously said:

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”

This statement resonates with me because my biggest career growth has always come from steep, even overwhelming learning curves. When I worked as a translator at Shaklee Japan in the Tokyo headquarters, I became the only foreign employee of 1,000 staff, and at age 24. After one year translating the marketing brochures from Japanese to English for the US office, I expanded my reading and writing knowledge from 300 to 1,000 characters.

Then, for Kenan-Flagler Business School, as a new section instructor, I had to learn a new syllabus and a new online teaching platform (2U) to effectively host weekly, live televised sessions.

In both stressful cases, by pushing through, I later gained (or refined) a skill set that helped me market myself as a subject matter expert. In tough roles, we also hear more precious, direct feedback (good and bad) and that insight helps us move from good to great.

And yet, Women in the Workplace 2016, a helpful report from Lean In and McKinsey, found while women ask for feedback just as often as men, they remain less likely to receive that vital input. Catalyst, the nonprofit organization, also found men struggle with giving women hard, tough feedback, therefore, they offer softer or a different feedback to what they offer men. Food for thought!

Note (and Understand) Different Approaches in Business Exist.

Research also shows differential effects (between men and women) of avoiding workplace conflicts. So, while managers tend to direct their team to avoid workplace combat, for women, this approach might lead to feeling emotionally exhausted and ultimately, burned out and wanting to leave their job.

Additionally, while some managers might view a teammate who doesn’t negotiate well as not eager to climb the ranks, when we’re talking about gender, that’s not always true. Economist Linda Babcock’s research and book, Women Don’t Ask, finds that women don’t negotiate in business as often as men do, women feel greater fear of damaging relationships with their managers by asking for more opportunities, and women see fewer opportunities that warrant negotiating. As the Guardian writes, “Women don’t negotiate as much as men do because they don’t know that they can negotiate and often have less information about what they could be asking for.”


Feel inspired? Write and tell me what bias you see existing in your workplace? What programs/initiatives exist and do these efforts help? Don’t forget: Men make the best advocates for helping women gain true equality in leadership. Tell me these stories, too.

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