Strategies to Combat Gender Bias
Women continue to face unconscious biases in the workplace that undermine their success, according to Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris, authors of the new book Breaking Through Bias. Although written by long-time activists working to break down barriers to women in the workplace, Breaking Through Bias is not an indictment of gender discrimination but, rather, a straightforward guide on how women can achieve success in spite of the discrimination.
For Kramer and Harris, a husband-and-wife team of attorneys, the secret to overcoming the gender bias, deliberate or unconscious, that pervades today’s workplace is to develop an effective communication style through which women can display their competence and experience while neither encouraging nor buying into gender stereotypes. The authors call this attuned gender communication.
The general message of the book, however, is two-fold. First, while women are not to blame for gender stereotypes, they sometimes undermine their own efforts to overcome such stereotypes. The second message is that many women do not even attempt to battle stereotypes; instead they buy into them.
For example, a study of men and women who had graduated from an elite international MBA program revealed that women were far less likely to apply for jobs in finance and consulting and far more likely to apply for general management jobs — no doubt because of the unconscious bias of the women that men are better at math or handling the pressure of consulting, while women are better at the soft skills needed to successfully manage people.
The Sloppy Thinker
The focus of their book, however, is to help women who refuse to buy into the biases but understand that they have a responsibility to help themselves. The challenge of this “help yourself” message is illustrated in the story of a leader that Kramer was coaching remotely. Ellen was constantly passed over for promotions because, according to her superiors, she was a “sloppy thinker.” When Kramer finally met Ellen, she discovered a leader who dressed so casually “it was hard for me to tell if she was wearing her pajamas or a sweat suit.” At Kramer’s suggestions, Ellen started dressing “like a banker” and never heard the “sloppy thinker” comment again.
The story does not end there, however. Kramer recounted Ellen’s experience in a workshop and learned later that many of the women criticized Kramer’s actions. “These women said that I had advised Ellen to be inauthentic and to buy into traditional stereotypes,” Kramer writes. Although disappointed that she had failed to get her message across, Kramer was also sad. “I realized that the women who had criticized me were unlikely to get as far as they wanted to in their own careers if they really thought that a woman would lose her authenticity if she didn’t go to important meetings dressed in her pajamas,” she writes.
The fact of the matter is that impressions count, and indeed, the importance of managing impressions is one of the key lessons in the book. As the authors explain, “... by understanding how to become better attuned to gender stereotypes, anticipating the biases these stereotypes foster and managing their impressions, women can take control of their careers and advance on a basis comparable to that of the men with whom they compete.”
In addition to a commitment to managing impressions, attuned gender communication also involves the cultivation of four key attitudes (grit, a positive perspective on your abilities, a coping sense of humor and a confident self-image); remaining highly self-aware and continuously self-monitoring; and learning to use a variety of communication techniques that will help women avoid the Goldilocks Dilemma of appearing either too tough or too soft. For example, the authors offer important lessons on verbal communication, such as speaking at a moderate pitch and pace and avoiding emotional words (“I feel”) and weakening phrases (e.g., too many “I’m sorry’s”).
Hopefully, there will be a time when workplace biases against women have finally disappeared. Until that time, however, Breaking Through Bias is a practical and important book for women navigating through the labyrinth of conscious and unconscious discrimination.
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