Gender bias in everyday interactions

We often share examples - in our blogs and leader workshops -  of how unconscious bias and gender stereotypes impact recruitment choices and general business decisions. In this blog, we take a look at the impact on meeting interactions, through an example that will be familiar to many of us.

When there's only one woman in a meeting, it's not uncommon to hear a male leader say, 'I'd better not say something crass here because (insert woman's name) is in the room.' Sometimes a leader will apologise to the woman for swearing. 

We know leaders generally mean well when they make these comments. They've probably heard it themselves many times in their careers and consider it nothing more than light-hearted banter.

But the comments can have a negative impact, because the person singled out feels uncomfortable, not part of the in-group. And it reinforces the stereotype that men and women are different and should interact in certain ways. Those stereotypes actually perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace.

We were recently asked by a female leader how best to respond in these situations, and suggested she might try saying something like this after the meeting:

"I know you mean well, but it’s uncomfortable for me when you single me out with the comment ‘I don’t want to say something crass because (insert name's) here’. It reinforces stereotypes about how men and women should interact, and that's not helpful for gender equality at work. I’d prefer we use language that's respectful of each other, and that'll help all of us work better together."

Each time we sensitively make someone aware of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, we’re taking a step forward for diversity.

This is along the lines of the golden rules of giving feedback effectively: ‘When you … I feel … I’d prefer … the impact is …’

Some people will think this is political correctness taken to extremes, but eliminating everyday sexism is a commitment by male business leaders of some of our biggest organisations in Australia.

"We have to get better at responding to behaviour that is unhelpful and excludes people," their recent report 'We Set the Tone' says. "And we need to own what we say and take full responsibility for the consequences of our words and conduct. The same goes for our silence and inaction."

There's many outstanding recommendations in the report from the Male Champions of Change. One really resonated when we shared it recently with the LinkedIn community: reframe a discussion when an employee or candidate is assessed as ‘too’ anything – ‘too bossy’, ‘too soft’. ‘too emotional’.

It's not easy, but each time we sensitively make someone aware of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, we’re taking a step forward for diversity and gender equality in particular.

We'd love to hear other ideas or ways to frame these types of conversations. 

 Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images