Welcome to our series on systemic bias in the workplace. For the next several weeks we’ll be spotlighting various categories of bias, starting today with gender bias in the workplace. Our aim is to add to the ongoing conversation and help everyone build more inclusive environments. We hope you find it informative. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
We all have biases that impact how we perceive others and the ways in which we behave. These biases can span an array of different traits and situations. Today, we’ll be discussing gender bias in the workplace.
I’ve had many conversations with females who believe that we’ve achieved equality and feminism is no longer necessary. I’ve had just as many conversations with women and non-binary individuals who feel people treat them differently because of their gender.
But this is all anecdotal. What do the stats about gender bias in the workplace say?
Brace yourself, because it isn’t pretty…
Believing you’re not sexist doesn’t mean you’re not sexist
So, before we get started, it’s worth noting that studies have found that when you believe you’re objective—for instance, you believe you’re not sexist—it actually makes you less objective and more likely to behave in a biased way.
This may be because when someone believes they’re objective and not sexist, they’re not going to put the work in to really consider their behavior and how it impacts others. Or factor in the changing times.
Think about what people considered acceptable in the 1960s workforce compared to now. Sexism was rife back then, and many things that would get someone fired now were once accepted.
Many of today’s managers grew up in families and cultures that held those beliefs. The 1960s really wasn’t that long ago.
So, if no one is challenging those beliefs, they have no idea that what they’re doing could be harmful. Or that it could be a sign of gender bias in the workplace.
Business priorities and gender
Tech startup founders ranked having a diverse workforce seventh in the list of business priorities.
One quarter of these founders stated they weren’t interested in diversity or work/life balance. Yet their main goal was “hiring good people.”
So, they want to hire good people, but don’t believe addressing gender bias in the workplace is important. Hmm.
In the US, women hold 26% of the jobs in ‘professional computing’. Compare that to an average of 57% across other industries.
The idea that you have to be intelligent to work in tech doesn’t help. Girls aged five believe just as much as boys that women can be “really really smart.”
But, by age six, boys and girls believe women aren’t as intelligent as men. So, we don’t encourage girls to pursue careers in industries like tech based on the idea that they’re not smart enough.
And that belief can come across subconsciously. Most people don’t instill it consciously. It can be as simple as encouraging girls to focus on more feminine hobbies or activities. At the same time, they’ll encourage boys towards an enjoyment of tech or math.
This is a societal problem, but it has a wider reach. Girls lose their confidence, along with their desire to go on to become the next innovators and entrepreneurs. And it’s all because society tells them girls aren’t intelligent. (They can be, and are, for the record. But of course you already knew that.)
Then, when it comes to male-dominated industries, there’s also the issue of…
Sexual harassment in the workplace
When researchers surveyed senior-level women from Silicon Valley, the results were horrifying. 90% of respondents had witnessed sexist behavior.
Almost as many—87%—had received demeaning comments from male colleagues, and 60% had fielded unwanted sexual advances.
This from somewhere that claims to be forward-thinking, meritocratic, and supportive of its employees.
It gets worse, though. 60% of women had been propositioned. More than once.
And 65% had been propositioned by a superior.
The culture was so bad that a third of respondents had felt afraid for their personal safety.
What does that say about the working environments of firms that are developing much of the technology we rely on today, and will rely on in the future?
Is it really going to support other genders, races, or backgrounds if it isn’t a safe place for someone who isn’t a white male? Is it even going to consider the needs of non-white, non-male customers?
I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again, because temperatures were the bane of my life when I worked in an office. Most companies still set the temperature based on a formula from the 1960s designed for a forty-year-old, 150-pound white man.
However, women performing the same type of work have a lower metabolic rate. Which means the average office temperature could be five degrees too cold for them.
It doesn’t help that female clothes are generally made from thinner fabric than men’s.
As someone who used to wear an average of five layers to work, including thermals and a wool sweater, while sitting typing articles just like this one, I can confirm how painfully true this is. Many of my female friends have had similar issues, too.
I’ve never spoken to a male who finds an office too cold unless the A/C has been cranked up because it’s hot outside.
There has to be a compromise, doesn’t there?
How to build a more gender diverse workforce
The London School of Economics found that quotas ‘weed out incompetent men’. They do not promote unqualified women or non-binary individuals, like many people assume.
So, the next time you feel uncomfortable having a quota for something, consider the implicit biases that may be taking hold. Especially given that even females are sometimes reluctant to hire other females because they believe other women are either their competition, or less capable of performing a role.
When it comes to sexual harassment, make sure you actually listen to employees who report it. Don’t dismiss them because of what they’re saying, or who’s involved. It shouldn’t turn into a game of he said/she said.
Boundaries are important and people deserve to have theirs respected. Especially in the workplace.
Also, make sure that employees know you have a zero-tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment.
If there’s a “bro culture” where people feel they can get away with sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive language, that kind of language is more likely to be used.
Free speech doesn’t give someone a license to be rude or offensive, just the same as a diversity statement on a job description doesn’t mean you really have diverse hiring and employment practices. ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ as my old teacher used to say.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the difference allowing employees to work from home, or offering them flexible hours, can make. Not with 76% of American homemakers saying they’d go back to work if they could work from home, and 74% willing to if a job had flexible hours.
Given that 97% of American homemakers are women, that’s a big portion of the working-age population businesses are cutting out. A lot of these facts come from the eye-opening book, “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” by Caroline Criado-Perez.
If you’re looking for other ways to reduce gender bias in the workplace, start by talking to the women and non-binary folks on your team. If you have relevant ERGs, consider sitting down with them to learn more about their experiences.
Managing your employee programs through a platform like Workrowd can make it easier for everyone to speak up and find ways to feel included. To find out whether this is a fit for you, send us a note at email@example.com.