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Break the Bias Against Women in the Workplace (International Women's Day 2022)

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Read Time: 11 mins

On March 8th of every year, we mark International Women’s Day. This global yearly celebration highlights the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It’s also an occasion to call for breaking the bias against women in the workforce and in all other aspects of society.

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Above is the #breakthebias gesture for International Women's Day 2022 (Image source: Envato Elements)

One of the Women's Day missions is

“...to forge inclusive work cultures where women's careers thrive and their achievements are celebrated.”

Diverse and inclusive workplaces have many benefits. They:

  • attract talented women
  • have more committed and hard-working employees (of all genders)
  • tend to produce better business results

Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace also pave the way to make businesses more inclusive to other under-represented groups, not just women. It pays to stop gender inequality in the workplace.

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is “break the bias” (#BreakTheBias). As we celebrate the day, we want to identify and break down both deliberate and unconscious biases that prevent women from advancing in the workplace and the rest of society.

A Look at Gender Inequality in the Workplace in 2022

A “bias” is a prejudice or preconceived notion in favor of one person or group against another. Biases are at the root of discrimination against women. If we’re to increase diversity in the workplace, the first step is to be aware of the different biases we may have against women.

In the workplace, women face six types of biases:

1. Performance Bias

Performance bias is the assumption that women are less competent than men. This results in women being stereotyped for jobs that are deemed to be less demanding, such as teaching, administrative roles, and the like. Performance bias is also the reason why women are less likely to be in leadership roles. Even in traditionally female-oriented workplaces, such as education, management jobs tend to be held by men.

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One type of gender inequality is gender-typed work, such as relegating women to specific jobs. (Image source: Envato Elements)

In Handbook of labor, human resources and population economics, researcher Heather Clarke found that gender stereotyping in jobs, industries, and organizational hierarchy continues to this day.

“And this segregation perpetuates gender inequality in status and pay,” Clarke says. 

2. Attribution Bias

Attribution bias is the belief that women’s accomplishments aren’t as valuable as that of men’s. And so, their achievements aren’t given as much value as men’s. This leads to women not receiving recognition and credit for their work. It also means that women have to work harder to prove their worth in the workplace.

“Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, 'She doesn't have what it takes.' They will say, 'Women don't have what it takes.'” - Clare Boothe Luce, author of the play, The Women

The gender pay gap is a clear manifestation of attribution bias, where women receive less pay for performing the same work. And it's a global problem. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2020, the gender wage gap statistics in some countries were as follows:

  • United States - 17.7%
  • Canada - 16.1%
  • United Kingdom - 12.3%
  • Australia - 9.9%

OECD measures the gender wage gap as the difference between median earnings of men and women relative to median earnings of men. The higher the percentage, the wider the gap.

3. Likeability Bias

Likeability bias refers to the perception that women who are assertive and aggressive aren't likable. Co-workers think of them as bossy—or worse. Miranda Priestly, the role Merryl Streep plays in the movie, "The Devil Wears Prada," is the archetype of the professionally successful but despicable woman. Often women who are nice and likable are believed to be less competent. Women just can’t win!

4. Maternal Bias

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Parenting bias exists against both mothers and fathers in the workplace. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Maternal bias is the belief that mothers are less committed to and less competent at their jobs. As soon as a woman gets engaged, she’s already perceived as being less dedicated to her job than her male counterpart. Males who take time off from work for paternity leave also experience this bias.

5. Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is the tendency of people to like others who are like them. This bias can lead to unfair hiring choices and promotions. It can cause people to dismiss the ideas of those who are different from them. Since corporate North America is dominated by white males, then guess who tends to get all the breaks? Other white males! 

In 2019, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn reported that, for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 72 women received the same advancement opportunity. Affinity bias could be at work in the situation. When leaders see themselves in a team member, they’re more willing and likely to nurture them to reach their full potential. 

6. Compounded Biases or “Double Discrimination” 

The final type of bias women experience at work is the intersection of gender bias with biases against other groups. This can lead to double discrimination or compounded biases. Women of color, LGBTQ+ women, pregnant women, menopausal women, and women with disabilities experience the double whammy of bias against women plus bias against these groups. And the resulting bias is often more than just the sum of its parts.

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Women of color experience compounded biases based on gender and race. (Image source: Envato Elements)

“Women of color continue to lose ground at every step in the pipeline—between the entry level and the C-suite, the representation of women of color drops off by more than 75 percent,” says McKinsey & Company in their Women in the Workplace 2021 report. “As a result, women of color account for only 4 percent of C-suite leaders, a number that hasn’t moved significantly in the past three years.”

The above biases account for various challenges women experience at work. These include:

  • Gender-typed work. Women get pigeon-holed into specific jobs and excluded from others due to their gender alone.
  • Gender wage gap. All other things being equal, women receive less pay than men in the same roles.
  • Slow or no career advancement. Women tend to get passed over for promotions or have to work much harder for them than their male colleagues do.
  • Under-representation in senior and management roles. As a result of the previous point, positions of authority are held mostly by men.
  • Microaggressions. These are subtle behavioral, environmental, or verbal behaviors that are disrespectful or offensive to women. Almost 60 per cent of women regularly experience microaggressions at work.
  • COVID-19 burnout. After two years of the pandemic, women are significantly more burned out than men. More are considering downshifting their careers, leaving the workforce, or switching jobs, the McKinsey & Company report found.

7 Ways to Fight Workplace Gender Inequality

With so many biases—including compounded bias—against women in the workplace, we've got our work cut out for us. We all have biases. Nobody is immune from them. Becoming aware of our biases is a significant first step. But it's just the beginning.

Below are several ideas to break the bias against women at work and improve gender equality and inclusion:

1. Train All Employees

“What is education then? If it doesn't help a human being to recognize that humanity is humanity, what is it for?” - Beah Richards 

Breaking biases against women must inevitably begin with learning how to identify them in the first place. Only then can we fight gender bias in the workplace. This is why gender equality training for all staff is crucial. A good place to begin is “50 Ways to Fight Bias,” a free digital program.

2. Set Clear Performance Criteria

Have clear and objective performance criteria for every role in the organization. Measure the performance of every person in these roles, regardless of their gender or affiliation with other groups. This is an important area of improvement at work It helps reduce the chances that gender biases will color the performance evaluation of staff.

3. Review and Update Recruitment Policies and Processes

Gender equality, diversity, and inclusion begin even before you hire women. The way you recruit talents for your organization sets the tone for equality at work. Gender bias can creep into different aspects of hiring. Look at everything from the way you write job descriptions, to how you publicize job opportunities, to the interviews, and more.

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Overcoming gender inequality in the workplace begins at recruitment. (Image source: Envato Elements)

One company that's taken this seriously is Bank of America. By purposefully recruiting, retaining, and promoting women, over 50% of its global workforce and 45% of its management team is made up of women.

4. Regularly Audit Pay Rates and Gender Distribution

Increase transparency and uncover gender pay gaps by auditing the pay rates in your company. Find out: Is the wage gap real in your organization? This audit should also include analyzing gender distribution throughout your organizational structure. Are leadership roles dominated by men? An audit will shed light on areas of improvement at work.

When Aramark did its own audit, it discovered that the percentage of women on its corporate board was zero. In five years, it turned things around and as of 2020, women make up 30% of Aramark’s corporate board.

5. Accelerate Women’s Leadership Programs

Develop leaders among your female staff. Make sure each one has a career advancement path. Set up structured mentoring programs to empower female staff with the leadership skills, encouragement, and motivation they need to move up the proverbial corporate ladder.

Abbott is an example of a company that’s been doing this well. Women Leaders of Abbott is a mentorship program to connect women and help women maximize their leadership potential in the company. This is just one of the reasons Abbott has been on the Top Company for Executive Women list for 11 years.

6. Provide Benefits That Enable Women to Have Careers and Families

Don’t force female staff to choose between their careers or motherhood. Instead, provide the benefits women want so they can be happy and effective both at work and at home. These could include flexible work schedules, and longer maternity leaves. Incidentally, fathers want the same benefits, too!

Its parental leave, adoption, flexible schedule, childcare, and dependent health care benefits are some of the reasons why Cisco was named #1 Great Place to Work's Best Workplaces for Parents™ in 2021. A whopping 96% of Cisco employees say it's a great place to work, whereas for the typical US companies, that’s said by only 57% of employees.

Another example is Visa, which was named Best Employer for Women by Forbes magazine in 2018. Its Ready to Return program supports women (and men) who’ve taken time off for parenthood or other reasons. Visa also has initiatives to provide equal opportunities and equal pay for women.

7. Make It Easy, Safe, and Effective for Staff to Speak Up Against Bias

Silence is one of the behaviors that perpetuate biases against women and other minority groups. Make it clear to staff that when they see something, they should say something. Ensure that it’s easy and safe for them to do so. Add a hotline where they can report instances of microaggressions and other forms of discrimination. Making the reporting anonymous makes everyone feel safe. 

Also, take all gender bias and discrimination complaints seriously. Ensure that every report and complaint is taken seriously and investigated. Employees won’t speak up if they see complaints are dismissed or brushed off. Have a clear investigation flow in place and make it transparent so the ones involved know where each case is at.

To go deeper into achieving greater gender equality in the workplace, read the following articles:

Breaking the Bias at Work Begins with You

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Break gender inequality starting with your own sphere of influence. (Image source: Envato Elements)

International Women’s Day is a great time to educate yourself and others and take action to fight the many biases against women. If you want to celebrate the Day in your business or organization, the International Women’s Day website provides many resources. You can use them all year long.

This article has described the various biases facing women at work. We've also discussed areas of improvement at work. But this is only the beginning. Even after International Women’s Day, you can take action by learning how to identify gender bias and speaking up against it. You can also put in place one or more of the actions we recommend above.

Make changes within your own sphere of influence at work—even if that’s only you and a handful of your colleagues. Don’t underestimate what one individual can do.

“When we get comfortable with our own strength, discomfort changes shape. We remember our power.” - Jen Knox

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