Gender stereotyping and bias in the workplace – why it’s harmful to EVERYONE and how we can address it

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #EachforEqual which is about us all taking personal responsibility, regardless of gender, and making individual contributions towards collective change when it comes to equality.  And a good starting point is spotting and challenging gender stereotyping and bias – both in ourselves and others.

What do we mean by stereotypes and bias?

A stereotype is an over-generalised belief about a particular group of people. Stereotypes are not always inherently negative, they can provide a shortcut for the brain when we have to make quick decisions.  But since they disregard a person’s individual and inherent abilities, opportunities and environment, they tend to be prejudicial. And they can hinder peoples’ ability to fulfill their potential by limiting choices and opportunities.

In terms of gender, common stereotypes might be that women will display collaboration, empathy and diplomacy; while men demonstrate strength, competitiveness and logic.  Which is equally unhelpful to both sexes!  Women who don’t conform to the stereotype can be judged as aggressive or pushy which could impact career progression.  While men may feel pressured to behave in a way that could lead to them missing out in other areas, for example competing to progress up the leadership ladder could potentially impact on parental responsibilities.

Bias is an extension of stereotyping.  It’s an inclination or prejudice for or against a person or group.  And, in the workplace, gender bias is still an issue.  So how can we spot it and what can we do to challenge it?

Keep an open mind

  • Take the time to investigate and understand issues affecting gender equality; including the common stereotypes, their impact and the different sources of bias – especially as many of them may occur unconsciously. Consider common situations in which they might be present.
  • The better informed we are, the more constructive the dialogue around equality issues. And the better placed we are to then identify solutions AND learn from existing research or evidence-based policies and protocols that are having a positive impact on achieving the balance.
  • Sense-check your own assumptions about the issues affecting gender equality. Seek insights from others’ perspectives and through various channels to gain a more rounded view and adjust potential misalignment.

Share and listen

  • Be proactive in educating people on how to identify bias in the workplace – share the insights you’ve acquired around common biases, using examples to illustrate how and when they may occur.
  • Balance the desire to share and to speak out against bias with a willingness to learn from and listen to the experiences and opinions of others.
  • Put discussion about gender equality issues on your workplace agenda. Encourage open and ongoing discussion (this isn’t a one-off activity) and invite EVERYONE to be part of that conversation to promote a more inclusive culture.

Challenge bias

  • Don’t be afraid to constructively challenge others’ perspectives or make them aware of possible inaccuracies in their assumptions.
    • Ask the question of others, “Would your reaction have been the same reaction if a man/woman had acted the same way?” For example, assertive male vs. bossy female, confident female vs. arrogant male? The same characteristics can be used to describe males and females, but often with either a positive or negative attribution – we need to be conscious of the potential limiting impact in both cases if we are truly seeking to achieve equality.
  • Consider and be prepared to challenge the use of language (from recruitment adverts, through job descriptions and assessment and development tools). Be mindful of words that might typically have a gendered perception OR think about using language deliberately to challenge the stereotype.
    • Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review in 2018 found that the most commonly used positive term to describe men in the workplace was analytical, while for women it was compassionate. While the most commonly used negative term to describe men was arrogant. For women, it was inept. If we were considering promotions or payrises, which of these positive words sounds like it has more value in a business environment? And similarly, if jobs are under pressure, which negative word has less business value?

Ensure fairness and objectivity in workplace processes and protocols

  • Many organisations are already working hard towards equality and take their diversity objectives seriously. However, that’s not to say that they will settle for less than the best person for the job in terms of the required capability, skills and experience – there is no place for tokenism. This reinforces the need for fair and objective organisational processes from selection through to development and promotion.
  • Remove embedded discrimination from attraction materials and recruitment adverts – question whether the images used reflect diversity. Consider whether language such as compassionate and competitive might be more, or less, appealing to females or males and consequently whether adverts or role profiles may be unfairly loaded.
  • Similarly, consider how you present role criteria – long lists of requirements could potentially discourage female applicants, for example. In a 2019 report published  by LinkedIn, research shows that for women to apply for a job, they feel they need to meet 100% of the criteria. Whilst men will apply after meeting around the 60%.
  • Consider the basic principles of best practice assessment and development. Clearly define selection criteria, developed via role analysis to ensure accuracy.  Put the emphasis on what is needed to be effective in the role.  Increasing the representation of females in particular roles still needs to be underpinned by a robust selection process where they are assessed on the basis of their capability (equal to their male counterparts).

The last word goes to Work Psychology Group’s Associate Director, Analise La-Band: “Achieving true gender equality in the workplace requires sustained commitment and vigilance from all.  On both an individual and organisational level.  We all need to be prepared to question our own beliefs and to challenge and be challenged on biased behaviour.  Initiatives such as International Women’s Day help to highlight where progress has been made and where there’s more work to be done.  But the key is to drive change with everybody on board”.