Women in the Workplace: Gender Bias Still Persists


June 24, 2021  |  Laraine McKinnon


At Emtrain, we’ve been hard at work building a framework for measuring and scoring indicators of Inclusion, Respect, and Ethics and providing research and benchmarking to help companies be more intentional in their efforts. As we teach and gather insights, we also collect learner stories, and we’re always touched by the workplace situations they choose to share. Here are some of their experiences, in their own words.

Organizations have been aware of gender bias for decades, yet many still struggle to consistently address the bias and discrimination that exists for women. Here are three issues that persist. Share these stories to raise awareness of these far-too-common incidents, and encourage your employees to follow these three tips to create a culture of healthy feedback to address them.

Be more aware of your perceptions – they impact how others perceive you

All too often we say things and do things that we think are harmless—and maybe even without recognizing the negative effect, they can have on us and others.

Take for example this incident:

“We took an engineering manager candidate out to lunch. During that lunch, he looked at me (a female) and said that he did not hold women to the same standards when it came to liking Star Wars. We ultimately turned the candidate down for many reasons, but that statement left me wondering if he held female engineers to the same standards as male ones…”

While some people may dismiss it as a funny comment made in a social professional setting, at least one person saw the risk of more broadly ingrained gender bias. We can ask about the thought processes behind these one-off comments, and be prepared to address them, small or large. Some of the most avid Star Wars fans I know are female!

Here’s another:

“We recently reviewed the patient experience data at my site. The results revealed that most dissatisfied patients more often are females. The director and medical director (both female) jumped to the conclusion that women are the biggest complainers. It’s possible that we are treating women differently, but there are other possible explanations as well.”

In this situation, the directors dismissed patient experience data, chalking it up to a common stereotype that women are more emotional and complain more. A more thoughtful, considered approach would likely lead the organization to uncover more facts, possibly uncovering systemic issues, resulting in a better way to serve female patients in a time of need. And it could be more than just a patient issue: if these directors believe that women complain more, they are less likely to treat employee concerns or complaints fairly.

Pause before making assumptions

Too often, senior women and technical women are assumed to be less qualified than they actually are. Unconscious and conscious bias causes colleagues to make cognitive errors that undermine the women and their expertise.

Consider the impact of frequent and persistent bias for this senior female engineer:

“Was introduced to a colleague at a work function; they admitted they thought I was “the new admin for the sales VP”. Was asked by a male colleague to do his photocopying. Was asked by a male colleague to order lunch for his meeting. Was asked “who developed this software” when conducting a demo of MY work!”

And likewise, the frustration of this expert in her field: 

“I was presenting my research data to my fellow engineers and because I was a woman they would not direct their questions to me, they would ask my boss.  He finally told them that he did not have the answers because he did not do the work and if they wanted the answers they would have to ask me directly.”

Much like the boss in this last example, employees can step up and intervene to correct mistaken assumptions. When colleagues do this quickly and consistently, they create an environment where people are more alert of their own biases and pause before they speak, leading to fewer disrespectful situations. When people speak up, they also support and elevate female experts.

Treat people the way they’d like to be treated

A client reminded me the other day of the Platinum Rule “treat others the way they’d like to be treated.” It’s a great overarching principle—especially when we start from a place of respect. If we assume our colleagues are here because they passed a rigorous interview, deliver on their targets and objectives, and always strive to do great work, we treat others as valued members of a productive team. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And we won’t make mistakes like being hypocritical:

“There is a woman on my team who is a very strong, confident professional. Too often, I will see men in the organization treat her in a dismissive manner and hold her accountable for mistakes made years ago, and at the same time, not hold themselves to the same standards.”

Or misjudging someone’s mental or physical strength:

“The assumption that a woman couldn’t do the job because she wasn’t “strong” like a man was. When she was indeed strong enough for the job.”

Stereotypical treatment plays out over time and can lead to women in the organization feeling like they need “do more,” when in fact, they are qualified professionals who should not need to take on extra duties.

“The woman as organizer role has been a longstanding issue over my career. I’ve been told to “smile more” to avoid being perceived as intimidating. I’ve been asked to get coffee or take charge of corporate events that are not in my role (ex. can I be responsible for organizing company potluck Fridays.)  

Systemic bias also prevents women from being treated equally in performance reviews, promotion and pay, clearly seen by this employee.

“Strong history of the “good ole boys club” within the organization – predominantly related to pay and promotion for gender specific (aka glass ceiling.)”

What experiences are your employees having? How can you ensure that people are aware of some of the most common stereotypes so they can be sure to avoid them? How do you nudge the behavior change to treat people more fairly? We’re using a behavioral approach to learning, along with qualitative and quantitative insights to help organizations drive change. 

For more information, and to see our recent Welcome Women Back to Work webinar, contact us!


diversity and inclusionunconscious bias
Laraine McKinnon
Talent and Culture Strategist Women's Advocate Former Managing Director at BlackRock
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