Three Tips For Handling Gender Bias At Work

af1395988e688d4a98a3432822659cb0-originaNo More Sweeping Gender Bias Under the Rug
 
By Chelsea Kania. Some people—both men and women—are genuinely confused by the emergence of the topic of gender in broader social conversations. I watch friends and family wonder aloud on my social media feeds and in personal interactions why women suddenly see problems within their professional environments. To many of us career women, this is a lot less sudden than it seems. To some, it feels like a long time coming.
 
As we start this new conversation around gender bias, it’s become clear that none of us are all that well equipped to have it. Here are three thoughts that are helping me navigate.
 
1. Recognize that it’s about nuance. Nuance is tricky, but worth navigating for the benefit of us all.
From my personal experience, conversations about gender bias and discrimination in the workplace used to be discreet. We women in the office (the minority) used to take walks outside to wonder aloud about the small offenses we all felt and whether they stacked up to some inherent bias in the way we were viewed. We crowd-sourced our own experiences to try and separate genuine, unbiased commentary from more careless conduct. We were looking out for our careers, our upward momentum, and our reputations, so the last thing we wanted to do was overreact. But we didn’t want to be mistreated, either. It was challenging because gender bias today, unlike in bygone eras, is less obvious than ass-grabbing (though that still happens)—these days it’s all about nuance.
 
Researchers in Sweden recently published their observations about the language venture capitalists use when evaluating investment proposals. The point of the study was simply to improve their decision-making processes, but what they ultimately stumbled upon was an insight about the compounding nuance of gender bias. They discovered that the words and phrases the venture group used to describe entrepreneurs were consistently divisible along gender lines. For example, apparent youth was viewed as promising for men, but registered as inexperience for women. Arrogance and aggression were impressive traits for men, while enthusiastic women were questioned for their emotional shortcomings. Cautiousness was seen as an asset for men but a weakness for women. Individually, these nuanced statements could be dismissible. When looked at collectively, they painted a broader picture—the researchers were able to build completely separate profiles for male and female entrepreneurs based on the language the venture group used to describe them. They perceived the impact of this bias on investment decisions to be problematic.
 
The current conversation about gender is frustrating because nuance is frustrating. I know some men who altogether avoid speaking to certain women because they’ve been surprised by the subtlety of what offends them, and now feel concerned that they’ll say something wrong without intending to. I frequently hear this kind of statement: “I don’t know what I’ll say to offend her, so I just don’t talk to her at all.” They hold the burden of lingering discomfort, and it affects their daily conduct. 
 
I also know some women who avoid certain men because they’ve had bad experiences and would rather refrain from interacting altogether than articulate their discomfort. They hold the burden of either attempting to describe how an incident sits in a greater context, or not saying anything at all so as not to risk damaging a relationship through misunderstanding. When women can’t talk about what offends them and men can’t inquire to better understand the impact of their behavior and how they might avoid it, the result is a breakdown in communication between the sexes.
 
The impact of these conversations, and the trickiness of finding the right way to have them, can be divisive and detrimental on many levels—to individuals, to societies, and therefore to businesses. We’re navigating uncharted waters trying to address gender bias, so how do we collectively handle this?
 
2. Acknowledge incidents of bias, because acknowledgement can be powerful.
I was reminded of this the other day. I arrived late to a meeting and missed the introductions to a new vendor, so I dove right into presenting some edits to a proposal he’d sent. After accepting my comments, alongside those of my (male) coworker, the vendor casually wondered aloud if I was a customer service rep. I lead a marketing function, so this was a little off-putting. I gaped at him and then did something lots of women do in moments like this: I performed an instantaneous self-assessment. What exactly about my feedback, my tone of voice, my conduct or my outfit had registered as “junior level employee” to him? My recovery was pretty fast and I did what I usually do, laughed and corrected him. Then I made a mental note to check in with myself later to see if his error still rubbed me the wrong way.
 
My male coworker and I left the meeting, and almost immediately he turned to me and said, “Dude, wtf.” Misunderstanding him, I told him I thought the proposal would be fine as long as the vendor made all our edits. He stared at me blankly and then said, “No, I mean wtf was that comment?” He then went into what can only be described as a tantrum about how sexist and unacceptable he perceived that little dig to be. He was infuriated; I was shocked. I didn’t plan to mention the moment to him, nor to anyone for that matter.
 
Reactions like his are critical, because when you hear enough of those little comments you start to wonder if you’re being overly sensitive to still feel hurt by them. They build up; the term “death by a thousand cuts” comes to mind. My coworker’s acknowledgement of that situation was like a salve to one such cut. It not only validated for me that such comments are part of the larger mosaic of gender bias, it also made me feel more empowered to speak up constructively in the future. It grew the trust between us, which will in turn have a positive impact on our business.
 
3. If you are offended, own the burden of conversation by either doing it well or not doing it at all.
This one might be tough for some to hear. It’s a trade-off I’ve both witnessed and made regularly—to speak up or not to speak up, to have the conversation or not. Sometimes when I get offended, I can express myself well and the result is bonding. Usually this takes a little time and distance from the incident; I’m often not immediately in the right headspace, so if I speak too soon the result can be divisive. I sometimes lob a knee-jerk “excuse me?” to being called “honey” or “sweetie,” or referred to as a “girl” (I’m in my thirties), by older men—though my incredulity is warranted, my tone puts them off. I usually regret that knee-jerk reaction—if I had just taken a breath before reacting, my delivery could have been much more elegant and I would still have gotten my point across.
 
In my previous example, though it would have given me great satisfaction to confront the vendor for cutting me down in front of my coworker like that, my initial reaction was anger and embarrassment—which generally doesn’t lead to constructive feedback. The meeting was ending, he was a new vendor, I didn’t have enough time to assess whether his comment was innocent, careless, or if he just felt entitled to bring me down. I kept my mouth shut, which was probably the right decision.
 
I was hanging out with another male coworker the other day—he was having one of those, “I don’t know what I’ll say to offend her, so I just don’t say anything to her at all” moments. He asked me if he’d ever offended me (he hadn’t), and then curiously and somewhat skeptically asked if anyone ever really offended me. I told him about the vendor, and our colleague’s surprising reaction. I explained the nuance—that these moments happen regularly and that eventually they stack up. I told him there are moments when I’m overwhelmed by them and wonder if there will ever come a time when I don’t have to question if my gender is influencing the way people perceive my youth, my enthusiasm or my confidence.
 
It was a good conversation—a tricky one, but one worth having, especially because I’d had about two weeks to figure out how to articulate my thoughts. In my opinion, taking two weeks to find the right words to represent the impact of gender bias to a coworker whose relationship I value was more worthwhile than spouting off to a vendor I’d just met.
 
Whether you are a man or a woman—whether you feel, witness or are skeptical about gender bias—your opinion matters and your frustrations matter. Talking about it is tricky for everyone—though for some more than others—but these issues exist and are hard to avoid. If we collectively bring them into the open while treating them with care, we can move toward something that feels like progress for the sexes.

This blog was originally published on Medium.com.
 
f4a3eb8be068e1ac5e332cb70760550e-originaWisconsin-raised but Cali-based, Chelsea Kania is a marketing professional in San Francisco’s tech jungle. When she has time, she sometimes writes about the times.
 
Posted by MARC Catalyst on Aug 30, 2017 11:58 AM America/New_York
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