Gender bias is like any other bias we face at work. It has a lot to do with the way we were raised, what we were taught, what is the culture we are coming from. But it is also caused by receiving too many information we can’t process and rather use shortcuts in our thinking to quickly come up with conclusion. In other words we are sometimes following stereotypes rather than spending time to rethink what’s going on.
Gender stereotypes are not one-way directional. It’s not at all that only men would be biased about their female colleagues. We as women fall into stereotypes too, for instance we often feel we are not ready rather then to go for ambitious task and show our strengths. Bias or stereotypes come from mental models that got coded in our minds over the time. To avoid falling into these traps, we first need to be aware of them and than bring the practice of challenging the bias in the workplace so that both male and female team members benefit. Being aware is the first step to reprogram our mental models towards more objective situation assessment.
Why is it important specifically for project managers? Project teams are temporary and have limited resources, that’s why it is important to correctly assess skills and competencies of the team members to promote the team performance and address areas for further development. Being biased as Project Manager may result in overestimating or underestimating abilities of individuals and unwelcome team dynamics.
The source for the second part of this post is article “Tips for the workplace” from Leanintogether.org. LeanInTogether is NGO co-led by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. The article lists 6 biases and tips how to raise awareness and deal with them. I’ve shortly summarized them below. Please feel free to challenge them in the comments section or to share your experience.
Challenge the like-ability penalty
Successful man are more like-able, but successful women are not. Assertive women are seen as aggressive, ambitious, but men with the same behavior are seen as confident and strong.
How to deal with this: The advice from the article is to listen to the language of like-ability penalty and when you hear it, request a specific example of behavior when a female colleague was seen as pushy or aggressive. Challenge the situation by asking if men with the same behavior would be seen the same way. The answer is probably no.
Evaluate performance fairly
There is a difference on how we evaluate men and women performance. Women are promoted based on what they already achieved, men are promoted based on their potential.
How to deal with this: The key is fair and transparent performance evaluation.
For instance when you check top influencers on this forum you see very few women. Would you think that someone pushed competent women back and put men on their places? Of course not, the system is transparent. But whenever is evaluation based on gut feeling, the transparency is lost and fairness is in question.
Give women credit
Men attribute their success to innate skills while women see reason for their success in external environment, e.g. I was lucky in getting this job. As a result, women often undervalue themselves, have lower confidence and are undervalued by the others. They are then less likely to go for stretch assignments or promotion.
How to deal with this: Make sure that your female colleagues get credit they deserve and don’t let them downplay it by saying: oh, I just helped.. Encourage women to go for it!
Get the most out of meetings
Men tend to talk more on meetings and sit at the front. Women held themselves back and choose to sit at the end of the room.
How to deal with this: Facility the project meetings in a way that everyone have space to talk. Encourage women to sit in the front, ask women directly to share their thoughts. Be aware of “stolen” ideas and recognize your female colleagues for their contributions.
Share office housework
Women tend to take more of the office housework, for instance to arrange meeting rooms, to take notes, to organize events. We expect women to do it, it’s for granted. When men takes over such task, we appreciate him for supporting the team. But it’s not only the small office work, the article is pointing out that 2/3 of executive women in Fortune 200 companies are responsible for supporting business parts rather than for profit and loss units.
How to deal with this: distribute the project office administrative tasks equally. Appreciate whoever is setting up meeting room and don’t assume it’s a job for female.
Make work work for parents
Well, this is a nice one. Motherhood triggers so many assumptions, for instance that mothers are less committed to their careers. This bias can not be further from reality and completely undermines very hard decisions that parents have to take when it comes to figure out care for their kids. But this bias does not impact only women, men who take family time off face similar “punishment”.
I personally consider this bias as the most deep rooted and the most damaging.
How to deal with this: Don’t assume that parents, mothers or fathers, are less committed. They are not. They just have more on their plate to manage. As project manager avoid planning meetings too late or too early in the day, respect parents‘ needs and let them finish their job in flexible hours. Parents are committed. After all they really need their jobs to take care of their families.
I’m happy to say that I see less and less gender bias throughout my career. I believe we as society are changing but it’s also me who grew professionally in much stronger and confident women. Bias is just a bias after all, we can minimize it by being aware of it and fight it.