A guide to creating an unprejudiced work environment for women

Me? Biased?
Me? Biased?
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Last year, Harvard Business Review investigated a company where women comprise only 20% of senior roles. Their goal was to find out whether differences in gender behavior explained promotion disparities. The researchers perused communication exchanges and data coming from sociometric badges that recorded interactions between employees. They hypothesized that explicit preferences such as women having fewer mentors or less facetime with managers would account for discrepancies. But as they analyzed their data, they found men and women’s work patterns and performances were indistinguishable. And yet women weren’t advancing whereas men were. What gives?

It comes down to implicit biases, the researchers concluded, which are our unconscious tendencies to favor one thing over another. Often, these mental shortcuts are morally neutral, like linking “doctor” and “nurse” and “hospital.” But connect “doctor” to “he” and “nurse” to “she,” and these associations become loaded, and can, as others have observed, have oppressive consequences.

This reality helps explain why most organizations struggle to close gender gaps: It’s not enough for women to compete and show they’re capable. Implicit attitudes must change, too. But how? Here’s where to begin:

Know what gender bias looks like

A preeminent legal scholar identifies two prominent forms of workplace bias against women:

First, about 75% of a sample of women described walking a tightrope between appearing too feminine and appearing too masculine at work. If a woman is soft or cautious, she’s reinforcing stereotypes. If she’s assertive and confident, she’ll be perceived as bossy or feisty. It’s a lose-lose.

Second, women are commonly perceived to be less capable in “classically masculine” roles. They’re less likely to be given credit for good work, and they are held to higher standards of performance. Suppose a woman is interviewing for a computer programmer role. If you strongly associate men with programming, that can, unbeknown to you, color your confidence in her qualifications. Worse yet, maybe she’ll pick up on that hesitancy and feel a little less confident in herself. Suddenly, a subtle, slight inclination in your own mind somehow throws her interview hopelessly off course. The same happens during promotions. There is a 58% drop-off in white women’s representation from entry-level to C-suite. If you’re a woman of color, it’s an 83% drop-off.

It’s worse for mothers. In one famous study (PDF), researchers found that mothers were 79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and offered an average of $11,000 less in salary. These biases often seep into the way women see themselves, damaging confidence, and dissuading them from taking risks such as negotiating salaries.

Further Reading

Video Series: What works for women at work

If you’re gender-biased and don’t know it, take a test

What? Me? Biased? Well, see for yourself. Harvard’s 19-year-running Implicit Association Test remains the social-psych standard for capturing implicit bias, and the vast majority of its five million test-takers have shown signs of bias. Remember: biased ≠ bigoted. IATs express the influence of stereotypes, but they’re not proof of prejudice.

IATs for gender capture speed of responses for associating stereotypically masculine and feminine terms (“children,” “office,” “doctor,” “nurse”) with pronouns like “he” and “she,” by tapping keys on a computer. FiveThirtyEight aggregated data from over 700,000 gender IATs and found that men, on average, are 30% likely to hold gender biases, while women were, on average, over 42% likely to be biased—often against women, interestingly enough. Same-sex bias underscores the importance of awareness, which can be an initial step towards overcoming such bias.

Though there are some serious criticisms of IAT’s validity, the tests do nevertheless show us what immediate, automatic associations will tumble out before we’ve even had a chance to think. And it turns out even educated, socially-progressive people almost always show signs of gender bias.

That’s only acceptable insofar as we speak openly about our biases and prevent them from influencing our decisions. Of course, that’s a tall order. Achieving gender parity isn’t just about silencing bigots or swaying the misinformed, it requires that everyone be constantly critical of their individual inclinations.

Further Reading

Harvard's project implicit association test

Fight against all bias you see, including your own

It’s a good first step to acknowledge your own biases (gender-focused or otherwise), and try to guard against their influence. But because it’s hard for even the most well-informed people to maintain objective perspective, it’s also vital that we keep each other in check: stick up for those being victimized by bias. In her Quartz At Work article on how men can fight sexism, Leah Fessler writes that, despite wanting to help, men often hesitate to stick up for women. “They’re aware that calling out sexism when they see it may mean facing mockery, condescension, or rebuke,” she says. Fessler suggests that we get over any sensitivity we have about looking uncool for saying something real to a outwardly biased colleague. Employers, for their part, should be held accountable for fostering an anti-bias environment and not stigmatizing speaking out.

Further Reading

Men who want to fight sexism at work: Read Sheryl Sandberg’s blunt advice

Look past the pay gap

79 cents on the dollar. The gender pay gap is infamous, but it’s an incomplete metric by which we can measure women’s empowerment at work. There are complementary criterions: promotion rates, boardroom composition, job satisfaction rates, work-life balance, etc.

Prudential’s Harris Poll, a survey of thousands of American employees, looks beyond pay gap. The data reveals substantial disparities between genders with retirement savings, investment allocation, and financial preparedness, and levels of stress. The data reveals that 14% fewer women than men have saved at least $100 thousand for retirement; that at least 44% of women don’t invest in employer-sponsored retirement plans; that women exhibit substantially more finance-related stress and substantially less financial literacy.

Image for article titled A guide to creating an unprejudiced work environment for women

The data, shown in six charts, isn’t exactly encouraging, but the article presents a few ways forward: If employers help women become financially confident and secure, they’ll be in a stronger position of influence, and empowered women empower us all. In seeing that strength, our incorrect biases against women will inevitably right themselves.

Further Reading

Five charts show gender inequality is more than a pay gap. It’s a gap in financial security (sponsored by Prudential)

Pursue gender-blind decision-making

Quartz journalist Oliver Staley recently broke down how to remove bias from recruiting: check your language (avoid masculine gendered words like “competitive” or “assertive”), be wary of referrals, anonymize resumes, standardize interviews, and triangulate decisions with a diverse group of people. In one study, researchers found that simply including the words “salary negotiable” on job postings closed the income gap by 45%. Likewise, simply including senior women in promotion or salary negotiations can remove disparities entirely. This is not just good for gender equality, it’s good for business: recruit and invest in your best people, regardless of gender or social class.

As a testament to the importance of bias-free decision-making, several startups have sprung up to create data-driven platforms that help employers achieve this. A caveat: data, its collection and analysis, can also be biased, and employers should constantly be skeptical of how objective their data actually is, especially if they’re still seeing disparate outcomes. There’s even evidence that bias can carry into AI.

Further Reading

How to keep bias out of the hiring process

Help relieve unfair burdens women feel outside of work

At the company HBR investigated, women were substantially more likely to leave mid-seniority, after having been at the company for four to ten years. If men and women are equal stakeholders in a family, they should presumably be leaving the workforce at the same rate. But this isn’t happening. According to Prudential research, women’s outsized burdens outside of work hinder their success at work.

A few facts:

  • Women spend, on average, 65% more time than men on unpaid work, including child-rearing and housework.
  • Women comprise two-thirds of those caring for aging or disabled relatives or friends.
  • Women carry more debt than men — nearly 8x that of men for women aged 57-61
  • Women are nearly twice as likely to be single later in life, which means they can’t capitalize on pooled resources or the financial incentives of marriage.

Being money- and time-starved fuels procrastination, lower engagement, and reduced confidence. Thus, employers can’t just fight bias by fighting bias. By offering programs like financial literacy and planning, employer-sponsored child care, flexible hours, and generous parental leave, employers can lessen gendered burdens that amplify bias. One study (pdf) demonstrated how women who were financially literate were also more successful in financial planning, and more likely to plan. As such, employers can help women feel capable and confident in doing things like investing in their 401(k)s by simply promoting financial literacy. Employers should also consider how to modify expectations and better support working parents so that they don’t force women to make a “family or work” decision.  

Further Reading

Closing the retirement income gender gap

Make professional connections with awesome women

But what about actually reducing your implicit bias, not simply keeping it in check?

The brain will always associate. That’s how it functions. But we can teach our brains to make more accurate associations by engaging deeply with those we’re biased against. Engage with awesome women, mentor awesome women, be mentored by awesome women, and you’ll begin to see that women aren’t less capable, aren’t softer or feistier or less deserving of respect or raises. As diversity advocate Vernā Myers explains in her TED Talk on overcoming biases: “go look for disconfirming data that will prove your old stereotypes are wrong.” Find and admire and go further with awesome women. Build professional relationships with awesome women that actually let you see someone as a holistic person. Be inclusive. Be patient.

Further Reading

Vernā Myers: How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them

This article was produced on behalf of Prudential by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.