Updated: Mar 6
As we approach International Women’s Day, I want to take a moment to celebrate the fantastic achievements of women around the globe. I salute the hard work of the men and women who are challenging the status quo, driving change, and moving us closer to gender equality.
Although we’ve made great progress sadly gender inequality still exists. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #breakthebias and aims to shine a light on gender bias and the impact it has on women. The term gender bias refers to preferring one gender over another; it can be unconscious or implicit. When we talk about gender bias in the workplace, we’re generally referring to the preferential treatment men receive. Although we’ve made real progress when it comes to more overt inequality there are more subtle biases that often go unnoticed but have a significant impact on the confidence of women. Having listened to many of my clients talk about the bias they've experienced I feel concerned that over time people and organisations have become desensitized to some of the more subtle inequalities in our workplaces and I hope this blog post helps to highlight some of these.
Over the past year I feel privileged to have worked with several women who have spoken at length about their experience of working in largely male teams and the challenges this presents. Some were working in male dominated sectors like tech, manufacturing and finance whilst others were in senior leadership roles with very few other women at the table. There’s no doubt that working in male dominated environments come with its challenges, the most frequently referenced include:
Micro aggressions: By no means exclusive to women but as a woman you’re more likely to be interrupted or spoken over, have your judgement questioned in your area of expertise as well as receive comments about your emotional state. This has been supported by numerous research studies for example, The Women in the workplace report, (McKinsey & Company 2021)
Navigating ‘the boys club': Many women talk about inaccessible male banter or outdated male huddles. Theses impenetrable conversations often impact the confidence of women as they find it difficult to build connections as quickly as men, gain support and feel uncomfortable speaking up in meetings.
The double bind bias: This refers to the likeability factor, the idea that women must choose between being liked but not respected or being respected but not liked. Multiple research sources have shown that when men exhibit strong, decisive leadership behaviours they are more likely to be described as confident and assertive. In contrast a female leader displaying the same behaviour is often perceived as aggressive, lacking emotion, and uncaring. However, when women do show care and kindness, they are described as not being strong enough to lead and too emotional to make decisions well. It's a lose lose situation.
Office housework: Have you ever noticed that there are certain tasks like remembering birthdays, volunteering for committees or new initiatives, you know the ones that no-one really wants to do but are often important. Statistically they tend to fall to women. I often here, “Well no-one else would volunteer so I don’t really have much choice.”
Motherhood: The feeling that your commitment and competence is questioned when you become a parent.
A different approach: A client recently spoke to me about the differences in communication styles between her and the all-male team she works within. Her empathic and diplomatic style of communication with her team is often criticised for being too soft and slow compared to the more directive style of her male peers. Despite achieving the same results, she is not perceived as being as effective as her male counterparts.
Competence bias: Many of the experiences described above lead to women feeling like they need to prove themselves repeatedly. There’s a common narrative that says women must be more competent and work harder than men to be recognised as equally capable.
The impact of these experiences on women is varied. It can lead women to feel less confident in their abilities and less willing to assert themselves in their workplace in order to avoid unpleasant confrontations. But it isn’t all doom and gloom there’s an army of women navigating these challenges on a daily basis, implementing great strategies, gathering the support they need and thriving in their workplaces.
So what can we learn from the women navigating some of our more challenging workplace environments? I’ve pulled together 6 practical strategies that I’ve seen my clients implement with success:
1. Positive acceptance and perspective: So, you know it’s going to have its’s challenges and no, it’s not fair. Accepting that others will sometimes perceive and respond to you differently because you’re a woman is part of territory. You can’t control other people’s responses, but you can control how you respond and manage the situations you find yourself in. Whether you want to focus on your minority status or ignore is then up to you.
2. Build allies around the table: Whose support would you find beneficial? Who will have your back in discussions, support your ideas and generally help you achieve greater visibility and impact? Be strategic and start to build 1-1 relationships.
3. Hire a coach (and yes, I may be a little biased here): Having a professional to talk to about these challenges as they arise and help you navigate a way forward can significantly help. Why not talk to your organisation about funding this for you?
4. Play to your strengths even if they are stereotypically female. Be yourself and do it your way. Women tried changing their behaviour to be more like men back in the 80’s and it didn’t go well.
5. Seek out female role models: Find women who inspire you, expose yourself to strong female role models whether it’s an A-lister like Oprah, someone in your organisation or a leader in your network. Research shows that if you have exposure to a great role model, you’re more likely to believe you’re suited to a leadership role. Connect, engage, and grow a network of brilliant women.
6. Find a sponsor or mentor in your organisation: having someone championing your career brings huge benefits. If you organisation doesn’t have a formal process, consider taking initiative yourself.
We’ve made great progress when it comes to tackling more overt gender inequality in the workplace, and I hope we continue to tackle and reduce the impact of the more subtle examples of gender bias with the same enthusiasm. Cultural and organisational change takes time so it’s essential that the fabulous women navigating these challenges now are well supported as the last thing we want is for them to leave their roles. The more we can do to raise awareness of the impact of gender bias the better it will be for women and organisations.
To all the extraordinary women forging a path in male dominated environments – thank you!
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