“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” – Shirley Chisholm, First African American woman elected to the US Congress
Women’s Equality Day is August 26th in the US, more than 100 years after women gained the right to vote. We’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s still work to do. In fact, 57% of the population still doesn’t feel the country has come far enough on gender equality, especially in the workplace. And in the UK, 37% of women are afraid to voice their opinions on the topic.
Not only do women fear bias in their careers, but they are afraid that speaking up about it will harm them. Creating a culture of gender equality shouldn’t fall only on women’s shoulders. The hard truth is that female professionals can project gender bias on other women as much as their male counterparts — without even realizing it.
Women’s Equality Day is an excellent time for employers — of all genders and life experiences — to come together for the cause. After all, gender equality is a human fight, not a women’s fight.
Where can we start? The first step is often recognizing what’s holding us back. Here are three common biases that show up for women in the workplace and ways to help break them.
Bias #1 Gender stereotypes in performance reviews
Are high-achieving men and women described differently in performance reviews? In an ideal world, the answer would be no, but unfortunately, this may sometimes be the case. And typically, this isn’t done on purpose. Instead, it’s because of unconscious (or implicit) bias — defined as social stereotypes in favor or against certain groups of people that individuals form subconsciously and outside of their own awareness.
Why? Bias can come into play when delivering feedback. Prejudices can influence this process. For example, a Fortune study found that 66% of women’s performance reviews contained negative personality feedback compared to only 1% in men’s reviews.
Unconscious gender bias in performance reviews can lead to women being described as too aggressive or abrasive, whereas a man is often praised for being confident and bold. While society may define a good female as “nice” and “soft,” a high-performing worker — or manager — requires much more than this in business.
Additionally, women often receive more vague feedback than men — without specific details about what they have done well and what they can do better.
To help break this bias, employers can take the ambiguity out of their performance reviews by focusing on metrics. Doing so will create less room for gender bias.
Specific criteria prompt management to provide evidence to support their feedback on whether the employee met expectations. Women in the workplace won’t have to worry about being evaluated on their personality, only their accomplishments.
Bias #2 The Motherhood Penalty and the Fatherhood Bonus
After the pandemic struck nearly three years ago, over 3.5 million mothers either lost their jobs, had to take a leave of absence, or left the workforce indefinitely. Today, 18% of mothers have either changed jobs or left the workforce altogether.
What do these statistics tell us? The Motherhood Penalty is real, and the global pandemic brought it to the forefront.
Many women are told that one of the worst career moves they can make is to have children. Mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs or chosen for promotions. Meanwhile, men having children is proven to be good for their careers. Most fathers are more likely to be hired than men without children and tend to have a higher chance of being promoted after they have children — this is referred to as the Fatherhood Bonus.
Somehow women with children are perceived as less dependable than men with children, which has shown in parental pay differences. Research demonstrated a 5-20% per-child wage penalty for employed mothers versus an estimated 6% wage increase for employed fathers.
Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org, explains, “There is often an assumption if a woman is carving out some time for flexibility, which was so critical during the pandemic, that she is not as committed and focused on work.” She continues, “To break the maternal bias, don’t make assumptions.”
Companies can help diffuse the Motherhood Penalty by updating their policies and procedures to provide working mothers the same benefits as fathers, including pay and promotions.
Bias #3 The Broken Rung on the career ladder
The climb up the career ladder isn’t only difficult for mothers in the workplace but women overall. A 2022 McKinsey study found that for every 100 men promoted to management, only 86 women are promoted.
While many conversations over the last decade have revolved around breaking the Glass Ceiling for women — referring to eliminating what prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions — recent research found the most significant obstacle comes much earlier.
Rather than a Glass Ceiling, women face broken rungs at the bottom of the ladder leading to senior leadership roles. Although men and women enter the workforce equally, men begin to outnumber women almost 2-to-1 at the first step into management roles — which is key in the career path to senior leadership roles.
So, the real question is, how can employers combat the ‘Broken Rung’ so women are given equal chances to management earlier on? Organizations can set a goal for getting more women into first-level management. Doing so will help prevent women from being stuck in entry-level positions and, as a result, also prevent gender bias in senior leadership roles.
Studies show that if all companies put initiatives towards beating the Broken Rung, the US alone could add one million more women to management within five years. The data is clear; the Broken Rung can be fixed with the right workplace objectives.
Create a culture that supports gender equality
While we celebrate Women’s Equality Day only one day out of the year, the message and the importance carries all year round. Gender bias in the workplace — whether conscious or unconscious — is an issue employers must continue to address.
Thomas, CEO of LeanIn.org, explains it best, “You can have all the right policies and programs in place, and that is a great step in the right direction, but the important last mile is changing the culture of your workplace to better support women. That means all employees at every level are engaged to challenge bias, to step in when they see hurtful or undermining behavior, and to go further than that and practice allyship. That is when we truly get to inclusion.”
Having the right policies and programs helps prevent gender bias, but building a workplace culture supporting gender equality is just as important.