How to Deal with Unconscious Gender Bias

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By EmployDiversity

In the past, many victims of sexual harassment or gender discrimination remained silent. In the wake of high-profile sexual harassment accusations and lawsuits, it’s more common for women to speak up. In the workplace, sexual harassment complaints that once might have been brushed off by employers are being taken seriously. More companies are putting policies in place to protect women and to make sure they feel secure enough to report workplace discrimination.

Although most workplaces are safer than ever, unconscious gender bias is still prevalent in many organizations. Many women often still face subtle acts of gender bias every day. Most of these actions or behaviours are playing out unconscious biases that people are unaware they hold. Subtle sexism creates an unfair playing field where women are less likely to receive equitable pay and promotions.

How unconscious bias affects women

Incidents of unconscious bias may seem less offensive or damaging as overt sexual harassment. Over time, however, biased behaviour can have significant impacts on women and the workplace culture. Research has found that gender bias is just as damaging as other forms of discrimination at work.

Some examples of unconscious gender bias include:

  • Sexist jokes or references

  • Not including women in conversations

  • Being condescending towards women superiors, colleagues, or subordinates

  • Unequal pay for equal work

  • Providing fewer promotion opportunities to women

How women can deal with unconscious bias

There are effective ways to handle unconscious bias if you've experienced or witnessed it:

  1. Address the issue. It’s important to remember that the person is acting on an unconscious bias that they hold. They likely aren’t trying to offend you or realize that their behaviour is wrong. If someone makes a sexist joke, simply not laughing can be a way to send them a signal about their bad behaviour. Repeating what they said and asking them for an explanation as to why they believe it’s funny or appropriate can also be effective. Addressing the issue in front of a group may make them defensive. It can be a good idea to pull them aside and discuss what happened and how you felt.

  2. Change the culture. Review your company’s policies and practices to see if there are underlying biases against women. For example, a promotion policy that requires people to nominate themselves will favour men.  Consider approaching HR and suggesting unconscious bias training or a gender equity workshop for employees. Acknowledging gender bias is the first step to eliminating it.

  3. Don’t be an assistant. Unless being an assistant is your job, don’t make a habit of doing subordinate-type behaviours. Don’t be the one who always tidies the workplace kitchen or cleans up after the group lunch. If someone always asks you to take meeting minutes, politely decline and propose a male co-worker. You want to be respected as an equal to your male colleagues and avoid being perceived as a subordinate.

If you have experienced or witnessed gender bias, don’t be a bystander. Doing nothing is sometimes easier than confronting the issue, but that approach can condone the behaviour. Speaking up and promoting gender equity is necessary to maintain a healthy and equitable workplace.

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