How To Respond To Gender Bias In The Workplace, Because Nobody Should Have To Put Up With Sexism
Company culture is a major buzzword in the world of hiring and business. When it comes to improving work productivity and employee relations, gender bias is often something that is easily overlooked. Knowing how to respond to gender bias in the workplace isn't as clear-cut as it may seem, but it's still essential for workers. "Gender diverse companies have higher returns than non-gender diverse companies," Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder of Ellevest, tells Bustle. "They have lower risk, greater innovation, greater employee engagement. The performance of companies with gender-diverse teams is so much better."
Gender bias in the workplace is a hot-button issue that's recently risen to the surface in light of multiple people's allegations of sexism against Uber. On Feb. 19, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a detailed blog post about why she left Uber, claiming her male manager had allegedly sexually harassed her, but that the company allegedly failed to respond appropriately when she reported it. In a statement, Uber condemned the alleged behavior and the company is in the process of investigating these claims.
A few days ago, another former Uber engineer, Keala Lusk, stepped forward in a post published on Medium to share a similar experience she allegedly had at the company. Said Uber in a statement, “We take any and all allegations of this nature very seriously and have forwarded this to Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran to include in their investigation.”
The fact that these allegations of sexism and gender discrimination exist means it's just as important as ever before to continue these conversations about employee equality. Gender bias in the workplace can be as explicit as unwanted sexual advances or as subtle as a seemingly harmless sexist joke told in the office kitchen. While overt sexual harassment is a real problem, women often have to face sexist microaggressions everyday in the workplace, many of which are a result of subconscious biases that people don't even realize they have, Tiffany Eckelberg, director of public relations at The Muse, tells Bustle.
If you've experienced or witnessed gender bias in the workplace, here are 11 ways for knowing how to respond:
1. Ask For An Explanation
Before you do anything, remind yourself to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. "Believe in the best of the person across the table from you, assume that they are good people, give them what I call MRI (most respectful interpretation), instruct them in a non-confrontational way, crack a joke about it to ease the tension, and if they continue to act in a poor way, go to your supervisor or HR," says Krawcheck, author of Own It: The Power of Women at Work.
Additionally, if people in your office are making sexist jokes, don't laugh at the comments, Eckelberg says. "Sometimes that can be enough to make your position clear. That may make them uncomfortable or make them take a moment to think about what they said," she says.
Without bringing up the issue of gender yet, you can say, "'I don't understand why that's funny. Can you explain?'" You even just can ask them to verbally repeat what they just said, which will force that person to say the comment separately from the initial context, which might make them realize it's inappropriate.
You can also turn the tables by asking the person if he or she would've said the same thing to a male colleague. "It's a good question you can ask with a sense of humor in a non-confrontational way but still get your point across that you're still being treated differently," Eckelberg says.
2. Bring It Up Privately
"Some people might get defensive if you call them out in a group, so you can pull them aside and discuss the matter privately in a calm way. Say, 'What you said made me feel really uncomfortable. I know you were just joking around, but I hope we can steer close of those topics in the future,'" Eckelberg says.
Even simply pointing the behavior out without being too accusatory can make a difference. The other person might even appreciate the feedback, especially if he or she doesn't even realize the behavior was offensive. Ideally, by calling it out, they can make those adjustments.
Krawcheck says it's important to give coworkers the space and opportunity to correct themselves. Say something like, "Hey Susie, you referred to Joe as being ambitious and meant it as a compliment, but then you used the same word as a derogatory word for Jill. Not sure if you were aware, so I wanted to make sure you knew it," Krawcheck advises.
3. Keep All Documents, Emails, Voice Messages, And Other Communication
It is always smart to keep records of your communication with other coworkers, including your boss. That way, if anything fishy ever happens, you will have protected yourself and can give proof of any inappropriate behavior. Hopefully, you'll never need them, but it's good to have just in case.
Unfortunately, some women may end up leaving the company because they feel, "'I couldn't be myself in the workplace, like I had to act like a guy and tough out some tough situations,'" according to Krawcheck. "It's a killer for so many reasons. People can't do their best work when they are uncomfortable," she says. Ultimately, the option of leaving becomes more attractive than staying and having to act a certain way.
Having evidence of what goes on between you and your coworkers will help give you some control over the situation. There are many reasons why you might want to leave your job, but gender bias should never have to be one of them.
4. Tell Upper Management
So you've pulled a colleague aside and mentioned that you didn't like a certain behavior or phrase. If that colleague doesn't pay you any mind, then it may be time to bring it to the next level. Next time, if the colleague interrupts someone else, mention it in the moment: "Hey Jim, I believe that was Susie's idea." If the behavior doesn't stop and you feel OK with it, consider being more aggressive: "Hey, quit being a jerk and let her finish her thoughts." Chances are, Krawcheck says, other coworkers will hear you call the person out and realize that yes, that colleague is being a jerk.
If the behavior doesn't stop and that colleague shows no signs of realizing the behavior is wrong, it's time to sit down and have a real conversation about what's going on. And of course, if you witness something that's blatantly wrong like sexual harassment, it's time to report the behavior to the company's higher-ups.
5. Talk To Someone Outside Of Work
Sometimes, it's hard to know whether an instance of gender bias is just a one-time thing or says something systemic about the overall company culture. When you're not sure whether a situation is serious enough to bring up with your boss, talk to someone you trust that's not a co-worker, Eckelberg says.
It'll help to have a second perspective and get out of your own head; then you can make an educated decision in a calmer way about how to handle things from there.
6. Gauge Your Own Feelings
Unsure about whether or not a behavior constitutes as gender bias? "At every stage, you have to ask yourself what you're comfortable doing," Krawcheck says. Mentally approach the situation in a calm, matter-of-fact way and think about what's factually going on.
"It's a personal comfort question. I have found at the subtle level, the get-me-coffee level, not letting it go by but using a sense of humor about it to instruct can be useful," Krawcheck says. "If you get angry about it, you get yourself labeled as an angry person. You want to make sure you're escalating your response with the severity of the action. It's not fair and it's not right, but if we get angry about it, people will notice our anger perhaps more than we want them to."
Eckelberg agrees, saying, "If you're feeling uncomfortable at work or if you're finding that this is a persistent problem or straight-up interfering with your ability to get work done, it's a good idea to bring this to the attention of your manager."
7. Propose A Gender Equality Training Or Workshop
Ideally, employers should always hire based on experience level and skills, not gender or other personal characteristics. That means, for example, never asking women about their plans to have a family during an interview. "The effects (of gender bias) are really negative for all gender identities and can really kill an otherwise awesome company culture," Eckelberg says.
Positional bias is harmful because hiring managers could be missing out on someone who'd be awesome for a role, just because they have an outdated perspective on gender roles in society, Eckelberg adds. "Why is the woman better suited to being a better office manager or receptionist than a man? Why can't a woman be a lead engineer?" she says. The same thing goes for promotions. The gender pay gap exists because not enough employers are making sure that men and women with the same levels of experience also have the same salary range.
Hosting a gender equality workshop can help with this, even if it's just by getting the issue of gender bias out there in the first place. "Having one conversation about it won't matter. I've seen in my own company that having several conversations about it matter," Krawcheck says. "Every time we talk about culture or our people or hiring or firing, every time that we talk and bring in issues of not just gender bias but all kinds of bias, I push that we constantly question ourselves and ask, 'Is our bias impacting our hiring decisions in some way?'" Being aware of gender bias is the first step toward correcting it.
8. Look Out For Unexpected Gender Biases
Combating gender discrimination means recognizing that women can also be biased against other women. Why does this happen? "Women have historically believed there's only one seat at the table for a woman. And that wasn't just a belief, that's probably right," Krawcheck says. "And we women also grew up in a gender-biased culture, so if we grew up in the same culture, why wouldn't we bring some of the same perspectives into the office?"
9. Provide A Solution
As an employee, you can suggest concrete examples to your manager that will help address the problem (taking it one step further than just bringing it up). Let's say you're being targeted for certain assignments or tasks (again, keep in mind that it might be a subconscious decision, although that doesn't make it any less wrong). If you're the one who's always being asked to order lunch or take notes in meetings, ask if the team can start a rotating schedule where people take turns ordering lunch or taking meeting notes. Hopefully, just by bringing it up, you'll help the colleague realize that you're being treated unfairly or being given certain duties.
Or, if you're a manager, establish a no-interruption policy where team members are not allowed to interrupt anybody while they're talking. "This is an effective tactic that can make everyone more receptive to people's ideas and be more productive as well," Eckelberg says.
10. Support Each Other
Use your power as an employee (particularly if you're in a position of leadership) to combat gender biases. "Ask other people what they think, have them chime in the discussion to help create a safe and open space for people to express their opinions and help your colleagues feel valued and heard," Eckelberg suggests. If someone cuts in on another colleague while he or she is speaking, you can intervene and, as Eckelberg says, "stop the interrupter while they're interrupting." One way to do this is by saying, "Wait a second, I'd love to see what Jane was saying. Can you let her finish her thoughts?"
"When people are constantly interrupting you or taking your ideas, it can be difficult to speak up for yourself. But it can be easier to speak up for other people, which will also encourage them to return the favor next time," she says. Also be sure to acknowledge colleagues who come up with innovative ideas or provide great contributions at work. Give credit where it's due.
11. Don't Be A Bystander
Whatever you decide to do about gender bias at your company, don't do nothing. It's much easier said than done, but if everyone made gender equality a priority at all companies, we'd be much closer to an egalitarian workforce.