CEO Insider

He chased females around the office – 6 ways to deal with gender bias in the workplace

When the revelations of #metoo caused a storm in Hollywood, and raised the lid on the mind-numbing extent of sexual harassment women experience at work, I caught myself thinking how lucky I was. At no time during my career had I been asked to have sex in return for work.

Apart from feeling relatively lucky (while realising that even that is a bias ….), I also felt extremely frustrated about it, pleased that we’re now condemning it, and more determined than ever to keep pushing for gender equality. We should expect equality, and nothing less.

I was also reminded of my own personal experience of harassment. In my first days as a full-time worker in a large organisation I was told by co-workers that my new boss, a middle-aged man, chased female employees around the office. Seriously?

Yes, it did happen. On a regular basis. So far as I can recall, he didn’t ever catch anyone, but that isn’t the point. The point is the intimidation and fear that is caused by something projected as a seemingly harmless ‘game’, but which is most certainly not. Tacit license came from the organisation and its authority figures; his behaviour wasn’t a secret and it wasn’t stopped.

What was more common in my career was the feeling of being passed over for promotional roles, with vague, unhelpful feedback as to why. I could compare my qualifications, experiences and achievements with those of the guy who ended up with the job, and just not get it. I now understand the pattern of bias that infiltrates these decisions and can make sense of it; making sense of it doesn’t make it fair, then or now.

Whatever your level of responsibility in your organisation, there are a lot of ways that you can reduce the biases women face, and help yourself and others out with their careers.

  1. If you’re not sure there’s anything to this, get curious. Ask yourself, what if there is? Bias is created in big acts, but also very small, seemingly inconsequential ones. Try some data collection – how much time do male leaders spend with male team members, versus female? How much air-time do women vs men get in meetings?
  2. If it doesn’t happen to you, but you know it happens to others, use your voice within your network and be an ally. You can speak out more about the importance of inclusion in your network, and call out practices that are not inclusive.
  3. If you’re talked over in meetings, your views are discounted, or your ideas are stolen, speak with your boss about the impact, instigate some meeting groundrules to ensure everyone’s ideas are heard, and credit is given fairly. With groundrules, it’s easier to call it out, to divert attention back to the person who has generated the idea, to acknowledge what’s good about it, and if it’s yours, to own it.
  4. If you don’t get the promotion and it’s not clear why, eg, the guy who got the job doesn’t have your qualifications, experience, track record, smarts or people skills, don’t give up. What he may have in spades is confidence, and for men, that’s often enough. Despite the fact that confidence is a poor indicator of competence, organisations give it priority when they recruit to leadership roles. If it’s within your span of control, encourage your organisation’s leaders and your D&I committee to have clear criteria for job roles, and make sure they are used. Transparency about decision making processes and outcomes can go a long way.
  5. What if the unthinkable happens? Harassment and discrimination do happen, more than they should. Immediate personal support is a must. If it’s you, make sure you get it; if it’s happening to others, make sure you give it. To get action to stop the behaviour and to ensure the perpetrator is held accountable, work with allies. An ally is someone you feel comfortable enough to tell what’s happened, and who you can rely on to help you take action. If they’re male, all the better.
  6. How about changing the system? The more we focus on the system, the more rapidly we can change our own experiences. If you’re a senior leader, you can champion gender inclusion, be an advocate. Now is a great time to do that, as there are so many conversations right now about creating better, more inclusive and flexible cultures as we emerge from COVID-19 lockdown. If you’re not a senior leader, or aren’t quite sure how to be a champion, support the champions you know. Thank them, repeat their stories, help amplify the work that they are doing.

Written by Dr. Karen Morley. Here’s what you’ve missed?

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Dr. Karen Morley
Dr. Karen Morley, principal at Karen Morley & Associates, is an authority on the benefits of gender balanced leadership and how to help women to succeed at work. She helps leaders understand the value of inclusive leadership to organisational as well as social outcomes. She is the author of Beat Gender Bias: How to play a better part in a more inclusive world; Lead like a Coach: How to Make the Most of Any Team; and Gender-Balanced Leadership: An Executive Guide. Dr. Karen Morley is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.