How to Handle Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

February 9, 2018

Unconscious bias

More and more women are speaking up against sexual harassment in the wake of high-profile cases. In workplace environments that might not have taken complaints seriously in the past, more women are feeling secure enough to report them.

But an unconscious bias against women, and subtle displays of sexism, are still pervasive in many companies. And this hurts women’s chances of receiving a fair salary, being promoted, and achieving success in their field.

When unconscious bias affects women at work

Incidents that fall under the umbrella of unconscious bias may not seem as bad as sexual harassment. But over time, sexist and biased behavior at work can do just as much harm to women’s well-being, according to research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Gender-based bias is “as detrimental as other well-recognized forms of mistreatment at work,” the researchers write. They suggest that companies with zero tolerance for overt harassment expand their definition of harassment to include covert sexism. “This will require teaching workers about the harmful nature of low-intensity sexist events, not only for women but also for the overall organizational climate,” they conclude.

The researchers offer some examples of this detrimental behavior:

  • Telling sexist jokes or displaying sexist or suggestive materials
  • Talking behind women’s backs
  • Making condescending remarks to women
  • Providing lower pay for the same job or fewer opportunities to move up
  • Questioning a woman’s competency to perform her job

What you can do about gender bias

Though change may come slowly, there are actions women can take today to combat this behavior—including looking in the mirror first:

Challenge your own biases. ”Even the most dedicated of activists can harbor unconscious biases around issues like gender and race,” the American Association of University Women (AAUW) writes. But “change begins within each of us, and identifying our own biases paves the way for dismantling bias when we see it happen externally,” the group says.

Take a role in changing your corporate culture. Look at your company’s practices to see if there are changes that can be made. Google, for instance, has changed how it promotes its employees, according to an article in The Atlantic. “Women were being promoted less often than men in part because of a system that required employees to nominate themselves for promotions, something that runs counter to norms of traditional feminine conduct…. Google started systematically asking all employees who met the criteria for promotion to nominate themselves,” the article states.

Create a community of supporters. Women and men can form support groups at work consisting of allies who have each other’s backs, Jessica Bennett, author of Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, said in a Newsweek interview. When a man takes credit for a woman’s idea or interrupts her, her allies can speak up and remind him that the woman had the floor. “It doesn’t have to be aggressive; it can be offhand or playful,” Bennett says.

Don’t be a “helper” unless it’s your job. Don’t make coffee for others or clean up someone else’s mess. Bennett advises women not to bring a notebook to meetings. “If asked to take notes, say you can’t, and then nominate a male co-worker for the job,” she suggests. She calls this tactic “Throw to a Bro.”

Be your own advocate. Unconscious bias can hinder a woman’s career, the AAUW writes. Therefore, women must develop the confidence to advocate for themselves in receiving fair pay and recognition. As the AAUW states, “Women must speak up for themselves, push against harmful stereotypes, and demand to be fairly compensated for what they bring to the table.”

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About The Author

Jan Arzooman is a proofreader, copyeditor, and writer in AMA’s creative services/marketing department. She has worked in editorial for more than 20 years. Arzooman also is a visual artist who enjoys painting, digital art, and photography.

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