How to deal with workplace gender bias

How can individuals deal with a James Damore in a constructive way?

Workplace gender bias has been hot news lately. How do we spot it? Here’s some way to respond when we see it happening.

As the social and general media get into a spin about the now infamous Google Memo, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that women face the James Damores of the world on a daily basis. Sometimes many men are blissfully unaware that what they are doing would even be considered gender bias. We also need to take on board that women exhibit workplace gender bias too!

Read: Test behaviour expectations with gender role reversal

4 Tips to deal with workplace gender bias

workplace gender bias

1. Call it out

Call out behaviours, language or attitudes that are not appropriate or welcome. Make the perpetrator conscious if possible by using humour to begin with. They may not even be aware of their bias. Start a dialogue and ask them what their intention was. Give them the benefit of the doubt, but be specific that you received the comment, joke or behaviour as sexist and gender stereotyping. Ask them why they made the comment or they think it’s funny and if they would say the same thing to a man. If individuals can be persuaded to evaluate their own words and actions, they may come understand that they are shifting into gender bias and stereotyping territory.

For specific potentially one-off incidents the choices can be more difficult as women factor in their working relationships and the possible impact on their careers. I worked with a client whose colleague made a comment about her bum in a language he didn’t know she spoke. She called him on it and it stopped. Sometimes dependent on your relationship with the individual, a quiet chat with the person involved will be enough. The severity of the incident will impact this more low-key approach. The Google Memo was pretty nuclear in its fallout. Telling 30% of a company they are potentially lowering the skill bar of an organisation because of their gender or ethnicity, is not an authentic attempt at constructive dialogue. Although he may not have realised, it’s offensive.

For more exaggerated and ongoing behaviour, skip the “play-nice”  phase and go straight to the next step.

Read: Your gender balanced recruitment checklist

2. Record the incident (s)

Even if the incident seems low-key, keep a mental or even actual note. You need to check if it was a one-off occurrence. You don’t want to escalate a minor situation before you’ve established if it is a pattern. If it is outright harassment or offensive and discriminatory this step is even more important.  In this situation convey your boundaries in a firm but neutral tone.

A female candidate told me how she was asked a series of illegal interview questions about her childcare plans which were not posed to her husband when he interviewed with the same organisation.  In this case I suggested raising it with either the Head of Diversity or the headhunter involved in the search. The questions were posed by a female HR Manager.

Read: How affinity bias impacts the recruitment process

3. Establish if this is a pattern

Observe and establish if this is a pattern of behaviour that may include others. Record other incidents and keep notes.  In general I would say that something is a pattern if it happens two or three times. Others might say that once is enough and will depend very much on the nature of the behaviour involved.  If the sexism is institutionalised or part of the culture it may be more challenging to flag it up.

Read: Why AI won’t stop unconscious bias in recruiting

4. Report to a supervisor

If you now have a record of continuous behaviour suggesting workplace gender bias or sexism, express your concerns to a senior person in your area of activity. Be constructive in your communication, choosing language with care, explaining your experience of the treatment. Look for debate and solutions, rather than holding individuals to account in a blame and shame game. But also don’t  be fobbed off with “he doesn’t mean anything by it” or “that’s just how he is.” If you can enlist support from others then that would help. Class action carries more clout. Some pundits say that women’s networks don’t add value  – but this is one area where framing the experience with other female colleagues may be helpful.

Read: 7 small steps towards a bias conscious culture

Next Steps

Now the ball is in the hand of your leaders. What they can do will be very much dependent on the level of formal policies in your organisation. Any good leader will  attempt to facilitate open discussion possibly in conjunction with other members of the leadership group. They may launch an initiative to examine elements of the culture that facilitate bias and discrimination. This should be constructive in tone to avoid creating a bitch fest and mud-slinging session.  Boundaries should be precisely outlined and all players need to be clear on the action that they are required to take and where and when they are going to be held accountable. Sometimes workplace gender bias is so deeply embedded that explicit training or coaching will be needed.

The aim should  be to create a policy that gives clarity around bias and discrimination. Having a safe space for people to share their views is one thing, but at some point effective policies have to be drafted and actioned and individuals held accountable. Google had a workplace code of conduct in place. Many companies especially SMEs do not have fully stated policies for reference or even employee handbooks. This could amount to a small tweaking of the company HR manual or a significant project and will vary from one organisation to an other.

The important goal would be to avoid polarisation and focus on working towards creating a bias conscious culture and an atmosphere where it is acceptable to call out workplace gender bias in a constructive way by both men and women. If you want to test your own tendencies for bias take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. It’s illuminating!  And to monitor your own behaviour – ask for feedback.

Looking to address gender bias in your workplace? Contact 3Plus now!

 

3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Culture, Executive Search and Recruitment, Gender Balance, Personal & Professional Development, Relationships, Workplace
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Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.

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