Overcoming Gender Bias in the Workplace — What Women and Organizations Can Do

Overcoming Gender Bias in the Workplace —What Women and Organizations Can Do

If you’ve attended a continuing development course, only to find yourself feeling like you were watching paint dry, look no further than GlassCeiling.com’s professional development event on Feb. 23. At Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel, GlassCeiling.com and Entertain2Educate will present an original play called Family Matters: Sex, Lies, Money and Power (and Some Good Social Efforts Along the Way).

“The goal is to make continuing education fun and enjoyable,” says Ruth Goran, founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of GlassCeiling.com, a knowledge base for women in the workplace, and of Entertain2Educate, an events and education content developer. The Feb. 23 event is geared toward attorneys, and anyone in business and/or nonprofit organizations who is interested in ethical issues in the workplace today.

To whet your appetite for the helpful insights sure to come out of the event, we sat down with Andrea S. Kramer and Al Harris, authors of the book “Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work,” who are both presenting at the event, and they shared some of their top tips on how women can overcome gender bias in the workplace. 

Make It Better: How would you advise women to balance innate femininity with more stereotypically male characteristics that often are deemed important for women to assume in the workplace in order to be successful?

Andie and Al: As we discuss in great detail in our book, “Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work,” a woman who displays stereotypically feminine characteristics (what we call “communal behavior”) has the resources within herself to draw on when she needs to display those forceful, decisive actions that are stereotypically associated with men (what we call “agentic behavior”). In order to do this, she needs to have conversations with herself about grit, developing a positive mindset, finding confidence, and relying on a coping sense of humor. We provide techniques in our book to assure that a woman can effectively “dial up” her agentic behaviors and “dial down” her communal behaviors, as the particular situation calls for. In fact, the same is true for women who behave in stereotypically agentic ways; they might need to have conversations with themselves to “dial down” their agentic behaviors and “dial up” communal behaviors, as the particular situation calls for.

I have found your discussion of “subconscious apprehension” and “stereotype threat” very interesting, and have seen how that can play itself out even in young girls. How does this manifest itself for women in the workplace?

We call this subconscious apprehension “self-limiting bias” because women can internalize negative biases about women and apply those negative biases to themselves and to other women. Take for example modesty. Women are often socialized since they are little girls that they need to be modest. The modesty stereotype can pose a serious career threat to women in their careers. This is because career advancement often relies on a large dose of self-promotion. But because of the often-internalized stereotype that women are (and should be) modest, women often hold themselves back from tooting their own horns and owning up their career accomplishments.

I appreciate how you encourage women to use humor to deflect uncomfortable situations. Can you give some examples of how that works?

Because American workplaces are often filled with gender biases, women can expend an enormous amount of emotional energy acting passively when faced with gender bias, or by responding indignantly to it. Sometimes, an easy way to avoid or overcome the discriminatory consequences of gender stereotypes — while keeping business objectives on track — is to use humor to deflect or highlight other people’s bias in a way that is less threatening to other people, allowing them to save face, and allows both parties a way to continue moving forward with the business at hand. We’re not suggesting that women need to be standup comics but that humor can go a long way toward overcoming gender bias. Humor is an important tool in women’s communication toolkits to make the difference between a positive and negative career outcome.

As the #MeToo movement has continued to shed light on sexual harassment in the workplace, how do you see organizations taking steps to mitigate this pervasive problem?

Organizations need information to know whether sexual harassment is a problem in their workplaces and whether their policies and procedures are, in fact, effective. As we explain in a recent article, “How Do Your Workers Feel About Harassment? Ask Them,” published by Harvard Business Review, if an organization is serious about eliminating the risk of sexual harassment — and it should be — it needs to ask its employees what they think. Because sexual harassment is part of a continuum of interconnected behaviors that range from gender bias to incivility to legally actionable assault, an organization needs to address all of these interconnected behaviors, not just legally actionable sexual harassment. As we suggest in the article, organizations should survey their employees. (We provide a model survey in that article.) Obviously a survey is only the first step, but without the knowledge that comes from the organization’s employees, the organization does not know what steps it needs to take next.

To purchase tickets for the program, click here. Upon completion, participants will earn 3.0 ethics credits.


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Susan Pasternak has worked as a journalist for more than two decades, reporting and writing on myriad subjects ranging from national health care policy to personal finance to head lice. Her work has been published in numerous consumer and business publications. Susan lives with her husband, three children, and dog Roxy in Highland Park. She also volunteers with Working Together, a Highwood/Highland Park organization that provides enrichment opportunities to under-resourced children in the community.