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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.