“Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue… Gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.”
To support that theme, we’re going to look at how to overcome gender bias in the workplace, since that’s a key step in achieving balance. First, we’ll look at some facts about gender bias and show why it’s important to tackle it. Then we’ll look at 12 steps you can take to tackle bias against women (both conscious and unconscious) and achieve better balance.
Let’s get started!
Why It’s Important to Tackle Gender Bias
Thanks to the determined efforts of activists in the feminist movement and others, many societies have made significant progress towards gender parity in recent decades. Legislation has been passed, working conditions have improved, and women’s representation in senior business roles has been increasing.
So, we can all pat ourselves on the back and forget about gender bias now, right?
Er, no, not exactly. Despite the progress, there’s still a very long way to go before the gender balance that’s the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day becomes a reality.
Here are some facts and figures on gender bias in the workplace to illustrate that:
The majority of women (62%) in male-dominated workplaces say sexual harassment is a problem in their industry. (Source: Pew Research)
Four in ten working women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work. (Source: Pew Research)
Studies have found that “women who promote themselves are seen as violating modesty and therefore less hirable, women who negotiate for higher pay are seen as violating passivity, and women expressing anger are seen as violating warmth.” (Source: Everwise)
Women earn on average 13.8% less than men across OECD countries. (Source: OECD)
In Australia, 49% of mothers experienced sex discrimination in the workplace while pregnant, on parental leave, or returning to work. And 40 to 50% of EU women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. (Source: Catalyst)
In the U.S., women of color make up a fifth of the country’s population, but only hold 3% of top executive jobs. (Source: LeanIn via CNN)
And keep in mind that most of these women-in-the-workforce statistics are from countries where the struggle for gender balance is supposedly more advanced. There are still 18 countries in which women need a husband’s permission to work, and 155 that have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities.
As you can see, gender bias is a very serious issue, and it has practical effects in limiting women’s career opportunities and making their working lives much harder than they should be.
I hope this has convinced you (if you even needed convincing) that gender bias is something your organisation needs to tackle. In the next section, we’ll look at some practical things you can do to make a positive change.
How to Overcome Gender Bias in the Workplace
What can you do to tackle gender bias in your company? Here are 12 practical steps you can take.
1. Overhaul the Recruiting Process
One common area of gender bias is in the recruitment process. Even if you don’t consciously discriminate, you may end up giving men an unfair advantage because of things like:
how you word your job ads
the requirements you specify
your interview questions and assessments
hiring from your own male-dominated networks
Start by examining your recruitment process. If you don’t already track the gender breakdown of your new hires, start doing it now—and go back and do it retrospectively for the last few years if possible.
Look for parity and fairness not only in the overall numbers, but also in the types of roles and the seniority levels. Hiring 10 women in junior administrative roles and 10 men in senior management isn’t equality.
As we saw in those women-in-the-workforce statistics above, the gender pay gap is significant in many countries. This is one of the most tangible manifestations of gender bias: women working hard and doing a good job, but taking home less money than men in their pay packets.
So, it’s essential to conduct regular pay audits in your business.
What does that mean? Essentially, it means listing all of your employees and their pay rates and seeing if, overall, there’s a gap between the average pay of women and men.
Also, it means getting granular and comparing individual employees in similar roles and with similar levels of performance. If there’s a discrepancy in pay between a man and a woman with all other factors being relatively equal, then you definitely need to fix that.
You can find more detail on how to conduct a pay audit and close the gender pay gap in the following tutorial:
Although gender roles aren’t as fixed as they once were, surveys still show that women shoulder most of the responsibility for household chores and childcare.
So, enforcing rigid working hours that make it more difficult to do things like picking the kids up from school can be a subtle but powerful form of gender bias. Lack of accommodation for pregnancy and parental leave is a more obvious form that can derail women’s careers.
If you want to remove gender bias, then, look at adopting more flexible working arrangements in your business. What that looks like may vary from company to company, but it could include things like:
generous parental leave
programs to help women returning from a career gap
As a bonus, flexible working arrangements tend to be popular with all employees, not just women. You can boost your employee satisfaction while tackling implicit gender bias at the same time.
4. Analyse and Equalise Promotion Opportunities
That glass ceiling must be made of some pretty thick, toughened, shatterproof glass, because it doesn’t show any signs of cracking just yet.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these chilling statistics from Catalyst. You’ll see that women’s representation in S&P 500 companies takes the form of a pyramid, with their numbers starting out broad at 44.7% of overall employees, sharply declining at higher levels of management (21.2% of board seats) and diminishing to just 4.8% of CEOs.
Look at your own company: what are the levels of representation like? Do you have a similar kind of pyramid structure?
If so, you can tackle it in two ways:
Create better opportunities for career progression and promotion within the company.
Hire more women directly into senior management positions.
The first would mean things like mentoring programs, career progression plans, and ensuring equity in how you decide who gets promoted. The second should be covered as part of your overhaul of the recruitment process, which we covered earlier.
For more details and ideas, see this post from International Women’s Day 2017:
Employees pay attention to what’s going on at the top of the company.
If they see women either leading the company or in strong positions of power, they’re likely to take that lesson on board in their own roles. If, on the other hand, they see an all-male leadership team telling them about gender bias, they’re not likely to take it very seriously.
If you’re a man, consider your own biases. Who do you surround yourself with? Who are your trusted advisers? How do you communicate with men and women? Do you tend to explain things to women?
You can’t tackle gender bias throughout your company if you exhibit signs of it yourself. So, look at your own behaviour, educate yourself, and try to minimise your bias at every opportunity.
6. Establish Clear Company Policies
Creating an anti-discrimination policy doesn’t prevent gender bias, but it certainly helps. Having documentation describing exactly what kind of behaviour is expected and what kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated is crucial.
Your company policies should also specify a process for dealing with any complaints of harassment, discrimination, or bias against women. You should take all accusations seriously and make sure they’re investigated promptly and thoroughly, with as much independence and transparency as possible, and that prompt and forceful action is taken against anyone who violates the code of conduct.
Also remember that reporting an incident of sexual harassment, bias or discrimination can be a very difficult thing to do in a close working environment, especially if it involves the employee’s boss or someone in senior management. So, look for ways to provide protection and help your employees to feel safe and confident enough to report any cases of gender bias that they experience.
7. Train Your Staff
A policy is great, but you need people to read and understand it. You also need people to do things like:
working through more complex scenarios
being aware of unconscious biases
trying to eliminate their own biases
learning how to communicate respectfully
understanding the benefits of gender diversity
A good training program can do all of that and much more. Professional training can be expensive for small businesses, but it’s the best way to help your employees learn and adopt best practices. There are also other options like online training, books and other materials that can be good alternatives if your budget is limited. For more details on how to arrange it, read this tutorial:
Mentoring is a great tool in any organisation. It can foster connections, enable people to share experiences and skills, create faster career progression, and more.
It can also help tackle gender bias, in a couple of different ways.
For a start, it’s a great way of equalising promotion opportunities and creating better career opportunities for women. Studies have found that people with mentors are more likely to get promoted, and also that women gain more social capital from affiliation with a high-status mentor than men.
Secondly, it can be a very effective way of helping employees to work on their own gender biases. Women can mentor men, and men who’ve made progress in dealing with their own gender bias can mentor those who haven’t. A good mentor can provide guidance and talk through scenarios, in a similar way to the training we just talked about but with a more personal touch.
9. Tackle Unconscious Bias
Some men are just overtly, unapologetically sexist. But a much greater number of people, both men and women, suffer from unconscious biases. These are the ideas we’ve picked up over the years from family, friends or the broader society, the mental shortcuts that help us to make quick judgments and decisions.
The trouble is, because gender bias is built into our societies, gender bias ends up getting reflected in a lot of our unconscious judgments too. So we may support gender parity in our conscious minds, while holding a set of unconscious assumptions that lead us to act in ways that undermine that very goal.
A great example of how this works in practice is this scientific study in which investors preferred entrepreneurial pitches presented by male rather than female entrepreneurs, even when the content was the same.
To tackle this tricky aspect of gender bias, the best place to start is by taking a test on the Project Implicit website to see what your own unconscious biases are. Then you can work to tackle those biases and to help others within your company do the same. You can learn more about that here:
Language is powerful. Even if we don’t explicitly display gender bias, we can communicate gender bias through our choice of language. See, for example, this article about the use of terms like “guys” and “girls”:
Even if you do everything else right, you can still end up excluding people if you use language that reinforces gender stereotypes. So, learn about the subject and be conscious of the language you use while talking to employees, presenting to clients, writing emails, and so on.
Also make sure that the messages your company sends out in its marketing and promotional materials don’t inadvertently exclude or alienate people. Getting the wrong reputation will undermine your other attempts at gender parity.
11. Communicate That Gender Equality Is a Priority
Things like overturning gender bias in the workplace aren’t a one-shot deal. You can’t, for example, just set better policies, arrange a one-off training session, and think you’re done.
If you want to be successful, you’ll need to make gender equality a priority over a long period of time and communicate that fact to your employees at every opportunity.
Embed it in your company objectives, report on your progress at every company meeting, and update people on it in newsletters, reports, Slack channels, and whatever other communication methods your company uses.
So many initiatives in the corporate world come and go, and employees can sometimes become skeptical about the latest big initiative they hear about. But if you hammer the message home on a consistent basis, you’ll show them that you’re taking it seriously—and that they should too.
12. Listen, Learn, and Adapt
As well as communicating about your commitment to erasing gender bias, you also need to sit back and listen. Let your employees tell you what’s working and what isn’t and be willing to make changes based on that feedback.
Also keep up to date with what’s happening elsewhere in your industry and beyond. As the long struggle towards equality continues, new issues come to the fore.
For example, while sexual harassment is nothing new, the #MeToo movement really brought it to light in 2017, and many companies responded by reviewing their own sexual harassment policies in the following months.
Stay up to date, listen to your employees, and make constant changes to reflect changing realities.
The 8th March 2016 is International Women’s Day. In this tutorial, I’ll explain the important contribution women have made, and continue to make, to computing.
Start Tackling Gender Bias Today
In this tutorial, you’ve seen why gender bias is still an important issue to tackle, and you’ve learned about 12 things you can do to take action for a better, more balanced workplace.
So now it’s over to you. Why not celebrate International Women’s Day yourself by picking just one item from the list and taking action on it right away? Even if it’s not something you can do in a day, you can certainly take the first step today.
If you need some more inspiration, check out this video celebrating the achievements of working women:
Leave a comment below to let us know what you plan to do to tackle gender bias in your business, or what else you are doing to mark International Women’s Day.