Women’s History Month may be over, but that doesn’t mean educating ourselves on and about women’s issues needs to end. In fact, it should be a year-long endeavor. This month, I wanted to talk about unconscious gender bias, what it means, how it can affect you, and how to handle it in a professional setting.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
So, what even is unconscious bias in the first place? According to researchers, unconscious bias is often defined as “prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair.” While no one wants to be accused of judging others unconsciously, it’s not always done maliciously.
Often, it’s our brain’s way of creating shortcuts based on your own past evidence with that person or group. It helps our brains conserve energy and make decisions faster. Unfortunately, it’s often focused toward minority groups, based on factors such as:
Level of education
Socio economic status
Yes, gender. I’m kidding, you’re probably not surprised at all.
Unfortunately, even for people who are actively trying not to stereotype, researchers have found that their unconscious mind is working against them due to “culture in mind” (aka culture influences your unconscious mind, whether you want it to or not).
Every woman is familiar with this phenomenon. Even though women make up half of the workforce and outnumber men in higher-level academic degrees, men are still outnumbering women in leadership roles. According to the AAUW, women make up only 25% of C-suite jobs in Fortune 1000 companies.
A similar breakdown can be seen in the academic world as well.
A large reason for this is bias: because men have been in leadership positions for so long, the traits associated with leadership have become unconsciously biased as masculine attributes.
How Often Does This Really Happen Though?
Often. According to Forbes:
Within the U.S., a whopping 40% of respondents agreed that either men make better political leaders or that men were better business executives or both.
12% of billionaires and 5.8% of S&P 500 CEOs are women
25% of people worldwide think that a university education is more important for a man than a woman
65% of Americans believe education is more important for men. (Despite the fact that women get more, and higher, degrees.)
57% of respondents in the U.S. reported at least one gender-biased attitude, and +30% had two biased attitudes.
Pretty horrendous, huh?
How Long Has This Been Going On?
Since the 1800s when women activists first started fighting for gender equality—a fight that’s still going on today. Women have tried to combat gender bias ever since.
According to The International Women’s Day group, "The 1980's saw an array of "Fix the Women" programs that were well-meaning in trying to help women become more confident, visible, well-networked and assertive - but many reinforced a notion that women needed to "act like men" and "fit" into existing patriarchal structures and organizations if they were to succeed (all while still being a superwoman in the home)."
Bias has been trying to convince us that we need to be something we're not, rather than standing in our authentic feminine power. We don’t need to be manly to be powerful.
This idea started to be prevalent in the 1990s, when “a focus on areas like 'women in the boardroom' escalated, as did more diverse recruiting, inclusive talent pipelines, and attention to wider diversity groups beyond gender such as race, LGBT+ and so forth.”
Slowly, we are moving toward undoing the unconscious gender bias that says women are not smart enough, powerful enough, or confident enough to handle high-level positions. However, we still have a long way to go.
How Can I Recognize and Stop My Own Unconscious Bias?
Acknowledge that unconscious bias exists, even in you.
Start examining all of your decisions, even when they “feel” correct. The only way to prevent bias is to continuously practice examining your beliefs and assumptions.
The next time you meet a new coworker or a potential networking connection, focus on what passes through your mind when you first see them based on their gender, skin color, clothing, and posture. As you strike up a conversation, notice what you think when they mention their children, where they went to school, or what position they hold.
It’s a muscle you can strengthen with enough repetitions.
How Can I Prevent Unconscious Gender Bias at Work?
Forbes offers several ways you can reduce gender bias at your office, whether you are in a position of power or not.
If you are in a position of power already, look into educating your employees about the many forms of unconscious bias, especially gender, and how they can prevent it in their own decisions.
Have a clear plan for performance evaluations that reduces the possibility of gender bias.
Talk about it. Make sure it’s a topic of conversation, either with your fellow leaders or with your managers. If you aren’t in a leadership position currently, you can still hold your leadership team accountable.
Watch your language. The words used to describe the same behaviors in women versus men almost always favor men (i.e. bossy versus confident). This especially applies to evaluations. When it comes time to promote someone, are you going to choose the person who was described as emotional or the one who was described as analytical?
Allow employees the option to provide anonymous feedback to prevent the possibility of gender bias (or fear of retaliation).
If you perform a yearly employee survey, make sure there are questions around gender bias included in it. Not only will you get valuable insight into how well your bias-reducing tactics are working, but you can also ensure more employees are talking about gender bias across the company.
Perform an employee audit. Often, companies will hire 50/50 at the entry level, but because women aren't advanced at the same rate as men, they either plateau below a senior level, or they leave.
According to AAUW, “For every 100 men that are promoted, only 86 women are promoted. And it’s worse for engineering and product roles: “Women hold only 34% of entry-level engineering and product roles and just 26% of first-level manager positions, compared to 48% of entry-level roles and 41% of first-level manager positions in the pipeline overall.”
Proactively promote women. Both men and women fall into the trap of wanting to ensure "the best person gets the job," but their unconscious gender bias gets in the way, resulting in the unconscious assumption that the male candidates are better qualified.
Ensure equal speaking time in meetings. According to research, men talk both more and longer than women. Use a facilitator to make sure that men don’t hog the airtime and women’s (usually extremely good) ideas are heard and recognized.
Unconscious Gender Bias Doesn’t Have to Last Forever
Reducing unconscious gender bias takes time and effort, but it’s well worth it. Women should not have to force themselves to look and sound masculine in order to prove their leadership skills—or their worth to an organization.
If you want to talk more about unconscious gender bias or how your company can reduce their bias, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.