By Tara O'Sullivan
In a recent blog post, Let’s Wipe Out Gender Inequality in the Workplace, I talked about the Lean In and McKinsey study. Their findings validate, as if it needed validating, the claim that women not only face obvious sexism in the workplace, they face ‘unconscious bias’, particularly as leaders.
There are many aspects to this unconscious bias but perhaps the one that is hardest to combat is the challenge that is the double standard we face as leaders, and our leadership style or language in particular. How do we fight historical and traditional concepts of what in very simple terms boils down to the fact that what is ‘aggressive’ in women is considered ‘confident’ in men?
In 2013 Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah M. Kolb covered the matter in detail in their HBR piece “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers.” They wrote about the extensive amount of research that shows that “the subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.” That “integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when, and how they should exercise authority.”
So how do we undo centuries of preconceived ideas of how women and men should behave? How do we address all the evidence that shows that even when a woman is deemed successful and a competent manager, she is likely to fail the likeability test because women leaders who are good at their jobs, are in fact not “nice people” - they are too aggressive, brash, bossy. I believe that part of the problem is just the sheer lack of women in these roles. As more people were exposed to women leaders/managers/bosses the perception would change, evolve and in time these preconceived ideas would simply be deemed anachronisms: stereotypes that belonged to an earlier, less informed time.
Thankfully we are seeing movement in that direction. Many companies are attempting to redress the imbalance and have implemented leadership programs specifically designed to encourage and promote women to positions of power within their organization. We created the Skillsoft Women in Action leadership program to help women overcome gender barriers and build their personal brands.
However, as with all big shifts in cultural perception, these changes will not occur overnight. So here is my advice for dealing with this issue now.
Consider the following:
- Know the labels and own the labels. Be aware of the names or adjectives used to describe you and take ownership of them.
- Be confident – even if you have to fake it—in your point/view and use this self-assurance to explain your position – even if challenged.
- Remember you don’t have to act like a man to succeed. “It took me a while, but I began to find a balance between sharing a bit more of my personality and learning how not to open the kimono too far!” Stephanie Buscemi, COO of Salesforce’s cloud business
- Silence your inner critic. If you receive an inappropriate comment do not internalize it and take it on as your own. Hold the other person responsible and deal with it from there.
- Be yourself. “I try to be myself—honest about my strengths and weaknesses—and I encourage others to do the same. It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time." Sheryl Sandberg, COO FaceBook
- Remember you do not have to be perfect. "As one of the few female executives in the spirits industry, I've learned to not worry about making mistakes—everyone makes them! Women are all perfectionists and find it hard to leave certain things in the past, but it's best to just learn from it and move on!” Jenna Fagnan, President of Tequila Avión
- Don’t be afraid to not be liked. Sandberg has said in numerous interviews that Zuckerberg told her if you please everyone, you won’t change anything. “Mark was right,” she writes. “Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders,” she insists, “including female leaders themselves.”
I also think women need to play their part in eliminating this bias. We need to shift perceptions by actively supporting one another. Unconscious bias is after all demonstrated by both genders, so women need to take care that we do not perpetuate the stereotype; that we are mindful of how we judge or describe our female bosses, as well as mindful of how we behave as leaders.
I invite you to reflect on your own experiences with gender bias and share in the comments below.
Tara O'Sullivan is the Women in Action Executive Sponsor and Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft.