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Gender Bias Is All In Your Head

Clare Babbage

Nov 02, 2017

This morning I had an A-ha moment and to be frank, I’m furious about it. A recent study by Humanyze has provided evidence that it is the way women are treated, not their behaviour, that is the main contributor to gender inequity in the workplace. Let me unpack that a little for you.

They looked at many data points to test hypotheses about how women and men behaved in the workplace to see which of these variables correlated with promotions, in order to see the impact of behaviour on the gender gap. What they found was that women and men act the same. Women and men are as central in the social world at work, have similar access to senior management and have the same communication and work patterns.

The problem isn’t how women behave it’s the way they are perceived

And it’s currently a lose - lose equation. Women have been told that it was because they took career breaks to have a family that they weren’t progressing, and my generation is having less children so that would have an impact right? Not really. It turns out that men with a family are seen as more responsible and are seen in a more positive light with or without children.

Then we were asked to “lean in” and change our behaviour in the workplace to be more focused on leadership in innovative ways in order to be recognised, but this study indicates that this won’t work either.  

It doesn’t matter what I do, how many diverse ways I change my behaviour and turn myself inside-out to fix this problem, it’s not going to work!

Continuing to say that the gender gap would disappear if I changed my behaviour is just another way of telling me it’s my fault. It’s not my behaviour that needs changing. Women don’t have a behaviour problem, we have a perception problem. That’s why I’m furious.

If women are seen differently, even when they act in the same way as men, it’s a gender bias problem and it needs fixing. Our workplaces and businesses are missing out on a whole lot of talent in senior roles. Women are trying to fix something they can’t fix and men are missing out too. Yes, I’m absolutely convinced that bias has a negative impact on both genders in the workplace.

(Think about it, if a man is seen as more responsible at work when he has a family how do you think that might impact his work/family balance? When you both need to work to support your family how easy is it to say “no” to your boss? And what is your bosses’ perception of your role in the family and your priorities because you are a man?)

So what’s the fix?


Unconscious gender bias is a complex problem facing our workplaces and we know that complex problems do not respond to off the shelf solutions. To change how we see the world we need to apply more than just a technical fix. You can start with the data but don’t end it there.

Find out what is going on in your company and then look for the long-term wins not the short-term ones. Don’t cancel your women in leadership mentoring program but ensure that you have all the training, polices and processes in place to surface the biases that have become embedded in the way we see the world.

Challenge this thinking and ask your employees to change it. Have the difficult conversations and uncover some of the emotive and less rational drivers of bias so you can move past them.

Try:

yellownumbers-01.png Bringing in a neutral facilitator who knows how to have these conversations safely and in a way that promotes growth;

yellownumbers-02.png Running D&I and unconscious bias training and share your internal data so your employees can see how this issue is playing out in their workplace;

yellownumbers-03.png Consider introducing the concept of role fluidity to your workplace, which allows for people to become unstuck from their roles and share their wisdom to drive better workplace decisions.

Not doing so is going to hurt your bottom line, in fact it probably already has.

Just as #metoo made us more willing to ask ourselves if we have been complicit in, or perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace, the gender inequality gap needs introspection and consideration. There needs to be some uncovering of our generalisations and judgement of the sexes. And to get ahead of the curve we need to make this a two-way issue — our biased thinking of men may be just as damaging to families, relationships and communities.

As Federal Government Departments are rolling out unconscious bias training to address gender bias in their recruitment processes we need to do our bit to uncover and examine the gender bias in all aspects of our workplaces and communities.

How can we help?

If you need some help working through your analytics and navigating tricky conversations A-HA is here to help.

Talk to us about creating higher performance through inclusive experiences by helping you to understand the lived experience your people have of inclusion, through to realising true organisational performance and innovation.

We will soon be launching a new online tool to put the right information at the fingertips of leaders making important decisions on recruitment, performance outcomes, workforce planning, remuneration, succession planning and more.

Topics: culture diversity-inclusion gender-equality unconscious-bias

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