How to handle hidden and unfair bias

cat with rind on headPowerful women are often in the news, but the topic of interest seems to be their image instead of their message.  It’s tiring listening to it, and for the women themselves, I can only imagine how annoying it must be.

That’s overt judgement, but what about the stuff that happens under the surface and behind the scenes?  Are you aware that as a woman leader you’re often the victim of hidden prejudice?  Are you aware as a man that you may be making these judgements and you don’t even realize it?

There’s a phenomenon out there called the Double Bind.  Women may not have known what to call it, but intuitively they’ve known for a very long time that it exists.  It stems from the thought, often subconscious, that female traits and leadership traits are at odds with one another.  In other words, you’re either acting like a woman, or like a leader, but not both. This comes from long-held beliefs about gender-appropriateness when it comes to behaviour.  Catalyst Inc. published a paper, sponsored by IBM, titled “The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership,” that details the research behind the thinking that “men are still largely seen as the leaders by default.”

In the Double Bind scenario, a male and female can exhibit the exact same behaviour, but they are judged very differently for it.  We’ve all seen it.  A man thumps his fists on the table in a meeting and he’s being emphatic.  A woman thumps her fists and she’s emotional and unstable.  A man shows empathy and he’s compassionate. A woman shows empathy and she’s weak.  A man is strong and decisive and he’s a great leader.  A woman is strong and decisive and she’s an a aggressive …..

Before you accuse me of blaming the men, rest assured that I am not.  These judgements often happen at a subconscious level and are a result of generations of institutionalized thinking.  And it’s not just the men making them.   I personally must admit that I cringed when I saw a photograph of Sarah Palin holding up her baby boy, Trig, when she was running for Vice President of the U.S.  How could this new mother possibly take a job that would certainly require so much time away from such a young child?  Believe me, I was more shocked than anyone when I caught myself making this automatic judgement.

If you don’t believe that this sort of unconscious biased thinking can happen, take a look at this study conducted out of Princeton. They found blind auditions made a difference in the success rate of women musicians.

So what do we do about it?  Well, awareness is the first step.  For many people, just being aware of these natural tendencies is enough to make us question our own actions and assumptions.  For women who are faced with this dilemma on a regular basis, here are some ideas:

Stay authentic  

Women run in to trouble when we try to adjust our behaviour to match expectations, and those expectations take us out of the realm of who we really are.  Waffling back and forth trying to get our behaviours just right is a recipe for disaster.  Know who you are and stick with it.  You can’t be your best trying to be someone else.  You can only be the best you.

Call it out 

When you see things happen, either to yourself or to someone else, call it out.  Be sure to do it in a calm and professional manner; no drama.  Simply saying something like, “That’s an interesting question.  Would you ask that same question of a man?” may be enough to fix it. What you don’t want to do is embarrass the other person by claiming discrimination or prejudice.  Sometimes the right strategy is to ignore it, especially if it’s blatantly obvious to everyone else.  Sometimes you gain more respect by what you don’t say than by what you do say.

Get feedback

Take a long, hard look at your leadership style and identify your strengths and weaknesses.  You’ll need to get feedback from sources you can trust to tell you the truth.  The higher up the ladder you are, the more difficult it is to find someone willing to be totally objective and honest.  Look to mentors in the organization who are higher up than you who likely won’t feel threatened by delivering bad news or go outside the organization if necessary.

Be consistent

Whatever your leadership style, you need to be predictable.  People need to know what to expect and they need to understand your style.  Beware of extremes.  If you’re constantly throwing people into a state of flux and think that’s a good thing because you’re keeping them on their toes, then think again.  Predictability helps people understand your behaviour and may cause them to rely less on subconscious assumptions.

Be great

Whether we like it or not, men are assumed competent while women have to prove competence.  That’s a generality, but it’s often the case.  If your goal is to be a successful leader, then just know that as a woman, you’re going to have to work harder than men.  But the good news is that now you know the default, you can take steps to show your competence, rather than wait for it to be noticed.

Be powerful

Many women still view power as a negative thing.  That’s a problem.  Leaders exert the power of influence over others, and we need to accept that it’s part of the job.  Naturally, power can be misused, and we don’t want to cross the line.  But leadership is a hard job and it certainly isn’t a popularity contest.  If you’re more concerned with being liked by everyone than by getting the right job done the right way, then you’re headed for trouble.  Find your power and use it appropriately.

Today’s reality is that women leaders are judged differently than their male counterparts; and like may things in life, it’s not fair.  Let’s not try to figure out who to blame because that would be a waste of our precious energy.  Rather, let’s bring it into the light of day, and find effective ways to fix the problem.


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