Implicit Gender Bias: Strategies To Own The Power To Succeed as Women Leaders

Addressing implicit gender bias at work may help eradicate it.

Addressing implicit gender bias at work may help eradicate it.

It’s there. You are not crazy. So now what?

Implicit gender bias has hung around women leaders in the workplace in nearly every imaginable sector and discipline for generations. The bias surrounds the workplace culture in a fog at times thick and impenetrable, and at other times, a mist that only feels instinctively palpable.

How do you deliberately deal with implicit gender bias and make your way in your career as powerful women leaders?   

How do you deliberately deal with implicit gender bias? #taketheleadwomen

Deborah Gillis writes in Catalyst  about the latest report, The Day-to-Day of Experiences of Workplace Inclusion and Exclusion, that “highlights that most of us feel both included and excluded at work on a daily basis.”

Gillis continues, “For women in leadership, it’s critically important to understand that obstacles occur no matter what we do. Women who aspire to the top experience them. Women who use the same “ideal worker” strategies as men—such as learning unwritten rules, seeking visibility, and networking—still experience them. So while women are stepping up and doing all the right things to get ahead, they are still being held back because of biases.”

The 9 Leadership Power Tools To Advance Your Career, as created by Gloria Feldt, Take The Lead, co-founder and president, addresses strategies and tools to address and circumvent such bias and succeed as women leaders.

The Society of Women Engineers’ newest study of more than 3,000 engineers reveals specific gender and racial biases faced within the engineering profession. “Implicit or unconscious bias can have a negative impact on the workplace climate, affecting decisions in hiring, promotions, and compensation,” reports Advanced Manufacturing. “Respondents were asked questions relating to four basic patterns of implicit bias: Prove-It-Again, Tightrope, Maternal Wall and Tug of War.”

According to Advanced Manufacturing, “The most surprising thing about the study was the flood of comments we received at the end of the survey,” said Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

“Among the respondents, women and people of color were more likely than white men to report that they felt they needed to prove themselves more to get the same levels of respect and recognition as their colleagues. In addition, white men were more likely than women and people of color to report that they could behave assertively in the workplace without pushback,” according to the SWE study.

“Recent studies on gender and racial bias and culture within the workplace confirm many of the insights we already know – women and people of color struggle to gain distinction within the engineering space which is very much still dominated by men,” said Karen Horting, CEO and executive director at SWE. “What we hope to achieve with this research is to encourage more dialogue on the topic of implicit bias and inspire and drive change in the engineering profession.”

Women leaders in the STEM fields report a high degree of implicit gender bias encountered in their work.

Women leaders in the STEM fields report a high degree of implicit gender bias #taketheleadwomen

Princeton University neuroscientist Yael Niv started BiasWatchNeuro, to post “gender ratios among speakers at more than 60 conferences in various areas of neuroscience, and compared them to the base rates — the proportion of female scientists in that particular field,” according to Apoorva Mandavilli writing in The Post and Courier.

“There were a total of just 11 women compared with 213 male speakers at 13 conferences that fell in the egregious offender category — those that were more than two standard deviations below the base rate. Seven conferences had no female speakers at all, and few conferences reached the 50 percent gender mark,” Mandavilli writes.

“Niv said that she and her colleagues believed that the gap between the ratio of the women in the field and on panels was primarily the result of implicit bias, which some of them have studied. ‘Implicit bias is just that — implicit: We are not aware of it,’ she said. ‘We are not saying that conference organizers are bigots and purposefully discriminating; they just can’t help it.’

Women launching careers in the sciences post-graduate school encounter implicit bias with recommendation letters. According to Emily Peck in The Huffington Post, “Because of unconscious gender bias, scientists are twice as likely to write glowing letters of recommendation for men than for women, according to a comprehensive new study of recommendation letters in the geosciences published last week in the journal Nature Geoscience.”

Peck continues, “Surprisingly, it did not matter if a woman or a man wrote the letter itself, the bias remained. Glowing letters included language the researchers designated as “excellent” and described the candidate as a ‘rising star’ or ‘brilliant’ and ‘superb.’ Women were more likely to receive ‘good’ letters that described them as ‘hardworking’ and ‘diligent.’”

“This is implicit bias,” Kuheli Dutt, a co-author of the paper and the diversity chair at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, told The Huffington Post. “If there was conscious sexism, women would have a larger number of doubtful letters.”

There are ways to address and maneuver around implicit gender bias, if not temper, decrease or eliminate it in the workplace as women leaders aiming for success. According to Catalyst’s Gillis, biases can be addressed individually and institutionally. She writes:

  • “Pay attention to everyday interactions, build strong relationships, collaborate with others, and lead open and transparent conversations. These personal connections with colleagues are vital and can go a long way toward making people feel valued and heard.

  • Men can take several powerful actions to help women’s career development. The first is sponsorship—advocating for colleagues and putting their names forward for crucial assignments. While those in high-level positions have the most leverage to do that, sponsorship is something that anyone can do. It not only helps women colleagues have access to more opportunities, but sponsors also get recognized for identifying and nurturing top talent.

  • Secondly, men can offer “air cover”—providing protection and support when others encounter difficulty in their efforts to innovate and deliver results. This empowers their women colleagues to have their ideas fairly heard and considered, and helps make those colleagues feel their contributions are valued.

  • Lastly, a strategy that anyone can employ is having the courage to defend and support women colleagues’ innovative ideas, especially those that may be risky or unpopular. Often ‘outside the box’ ideas can be extremely profitable for companies, yet it’s exactly those ideas that can be hard to get approved.”

“The aim now is to make sure we are aware of them. As soon as we are aware of them, we can begin to combat them. We can attempt to change the way we think. Not all implicit biases can be solved, and not all of them can disappear or even shrink in size,” writes  Bobbie Szabo in Kent Wired. “ But we certainly can and should try to decrease them.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon