Navigating gender bias in the workplace: lessons from tackling racial bias

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere...Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly". Martin Luther King

Image by Rowland Scherman, Public Domain

Speak to women about unconscious or subtle gender bias in the workplace and it quickly becomes clear that this is a unique challenge and frustration that a man cannot even begin to comprehend. Put simply, our understanding and recognition of the enormity, frequency and prevalence of unconscious gender bias in the workplace will always be incomplete.  

And yet. After more than two decades of direct experience navigating racial bias in the corporate world, I have become convinced that those of us tackling very different forms of stereotypes and discrimination have much to learn from each other. Two points are key: first, the way in which bias manifests and the way in which it needs to be dealt with is often very similar, even if the ‘source’ of bias is different. And second,

overlapping bias – or ‘intersectionality’ - is not just an academic concept. Rather, it is the lived reality of those whose experience of bias is both diffused and multi-directional.

It is important to acknowledge that racial and gender bias are not the same – especially in terms of cause and effect. But treatment and response are more consistent. Certainly, the lessons I’ve learned and researched extensively on from the perspective of racial bias are more generally applicable: providing a blueprint for successfully navigating unconscious gender bias in the workplace at an interpersonal level irrespective of its specific focus. Those same lessons may also serve to recondition the perpetrators of such workplace bias in the process. 

Guilty Perpetrator v Hapless victim 

Let’s be clear about our terminology. In this article, I refer to unconscious biases in the context of negative social stereotypes about certain groups of people -usually minorities -that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. These unconscious biases are as many and varied as the human condition. Unconscious gender bias might, for example, lead someone to make a judgement about the conduct of women in meetings. Unconscious racial bias was cited as the cause of a UK barrister being mistaken for a defendant three times in one day at court.

Example 1: UK barrister mistaken for defendant calls for compulsory anti-racism training

Example 2: Tokyo Olympics chief resigns over sexist comments

When seeking to deal with racial and other forms of unconscious bias, traditional corporate training solutions tend to follow the counterproductive model of Guilty Perpetrator v Hapless victim.  In this model, the emphasis is on training the presumed ‘guilty perpetrators’ to adjust their behaviour and decision making to be more sensitive to the minority that has been plagued by bias for years. This all makes sense at first glance and is appealing for minorities who feel that ‘they’ the majority finally get it!  But the problem is that this type of approach sets up a dynamic whereby the minority will always be the hapless victim reliant on the good will and empathy of the presumed ‘guilty perpetrator’. 

At some point, human nature kicks in and the ‘guilty perpetrator’ will become tired of interrupting their own cognitive shortcuts that influence their unconscious gender bias. The hapless victim will then be frustrated at this shift in behaviour and understandably begin to complain at the level of inequity and unfair treatment that they are now receiving. At that point we are back to where we started, waiting for the next unconscious bias training session that takes the same approach but dressed up differently to relieve the guilt of the presumed guilty perpetrator and appease the poor minority-hapless victim.

The Guilty Perpetrator versus Hapless Victim model also looks at unconscious bias as something that is more common to certain specific groups but nevertheless, something you can train out of those groups of people. Not everyone will agree with me, but I strongly believe that there is an inevitability about all unconscious bias, and that unconscious bias is equally common to every group without exception. Women, often unconsciously, harbour feelings of bias towards men, and vice versa. Racial minorities will accept and maintain unhelpful stereotypes about other racial minorities. This is part of the human condition. The difference is the nature of the bias and the impact it has on its ‘subjects’. One can increase awareness and reduce instances of unconscious bias. But trying to completely train all bias out of people is tantamount to attempting to stop the rain, wind or snow. Unless we are calling on celestial powers, this is impossible!

So, what is the answer?

Making Peace with the Inevitability of Unconscious Bias

At first glance this may seem like a bizarre standpoint but in my opinion, it actually represents an equitable and fair position for both the subject of bias and the traditional perpetrator, for the following three reasons: 

Inevitability of Bias. First, companies fail to recognise that the inevitability of unconscious bias in the workplace is a human trait at its core. And as such it is not a majority versus minority issue or vice versa.  In essence, we as human beings are hardwired to put people into boxes especially when they are different from us. ‘Boxing’ people is the first step. The discriminatory minority issues are the second step in the ‘boxing’ process, not the other way round.

Directional Bias. Second, as a minority of whatever persuasion, you will experience some form of unconscious bias at some point in the workplace– the nature, extent, length and depth of unconscious bias will vary depending on your specific circumstances -because you are a minority. This is because there are fewer of you and as such, views of those managing/leading you and those you interact with at work, will from time to time –however slightly, be influenced by and based on their limited exposure to people like you or people like you in certain roles. Or, something which is more common with all women; decisions and behaviours towards you are influenced by negative societal conditioning specific to your group. This of course, is compounded if you are an ethnic minority and a woman.  I define this type of unconscious bias as directional bias because it is directed towards you, albeit unconsciously.

Reverse Bias. Third, the reverse is also true, but much less spoken about for fear of being deemed insensitive to the equality cause; yet you cannot address unconscious bias effectively unless you include ‘Reverse Bias’ in the equation.

What is ‘Reverse Bias?’

As a minority you will also tend to have slight or strong conditioned views of the ‘majority’ which are born out of your -and others like you-negative experiences and societal conditioning about this group. This ‘majority’ group tends to be male, mostly middle aged, heterosexuals in positions of seniority in the workplace. I define this type of unconscious bias as 'reverse bias' because the minority is directing her or his bias towards persons they deem to be unconscious perpetrators when in actual fact the minority is the ‘guilty perpetrator' in this scenario. 

In my opinion, it is with this understanding that we must recognise unconscious bias as an immutable part of human nature in the workplace, and it is only from this position of fairness and clarity that we can look to address and navigate bias effectively and successfully without our vision being impaired. 

In both cases of reverse and directional bias the perceived bias feels very real to the ‘subject’ but it is always a sensed feeling, because it is unconscious or subtle from the perpetrator. The ‘subject’ of unconscious gender bias is never 100 % certain of the sensed bias, otherwise the bias wouldn't be unconscious. This makes it very difficult to address or call out gender bias without sounding irrational, unreasonable or paranoid and so most women or ethnic minorities faced with unconscious bias are left with one of four options:  

1.      Call out the sensed bias aggressively-‘flipping out’: making you look defensive, trouble making or invoking the accusation that you are playing the gender or race card 

2.      Say something like “you hurt my feelings”: which reinforces your perceived status as a victim and is reliant on the empathy and good will of the perpetrator thereby disempowering the ‘subject’ of gender bias

3.      Suffer in silence and say nothing but call out the bias inwardly: this builds up tension which frequently leads to displaced anger at a later date  

4.      Wait for a safe space to release your pent-up tensions and rely on the convoluted process of reporting to Human Resources. Human Resources then speak to the relevant perpetrating manager. You then have to meet with the manager and talk things out, possibly with the help of an internal or external mediator.  All of which frequently leads to uncomfortable ‘egg- shell’ walking and never really knowing where you stand with the perpetrating manager and how this will ultimately affect your career.

In all of these cases ‘subjects’ run the risk of making things worse for themselves and potentially stifling career prospects because they inadvertently sustain the victim status. They remain reliant on the presence of mind and empathy of the presumed ‘perpetrator’ or others to resolve the problem.