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Promote true equality in your organization.

Why are so many organizations still not achieving gender equality? Many leaders don’t think of themselves as sexist, and yet they find themselves presiding over companies that can’t seem to retain talented women.

These blinks will give some much-needed clarity and demystify that glass ceiling. We’ll discover what gender bias looks like in the workplace today, the damaging beliefs that underpin it, and approachable solutions for boosting equality. Packed with the latest research insights and stories from real-life organizations, these blinks will be your go-to guide for a fairer, more innovative, and more productive workplace.

In these blinks, you’ll learn

the real reason there aren’t more women working in STEM;
how leaders can make their entire workforce care about gender equity; and
why diverse teams are crucial for tomorrow’s economy.

Beating gender bias starts with empathy and listening.

No one likes to feel excluded. Feeling isolated in a group is awful, especially when it’s at the workplace. It can cause stress that can affect your quality of work. It can make the best job a nightmare. It can leave you feeling vulnerable and second-guessing yourself, leading to feelings of inferiority. This is what gender bias can feel like.

One particular leader recognized this problem and decided to do something about it. Let’s check out what he did to fight gender bias in his organization.

As the CEO of the leading construction company Fulton Hogan Australia, Nick Marinelli was a successful man. And yet even he knew what it was like to feel inferior among his coworkers. When he first started his career in construction, Nick didn’t have any higher education. As a result, many of the educated people in his workplace treated him differently. They treated him with bias.

Nick worked to gain a degree and eventually rose to a leadership position. But he never forgot his experiences of feeling different, and it spurred him on to help the women in his organization. Nick noticed that although women were joining his company at the same rate as men, they also tended to leave at a much higher rate.

When he set up a workshop for female employees to come and share their experiences, they told him that one of their biggest problems was the size of the construction uniforms they were given to wear. Because these uniforms were designed for men, the women often had to roll up the sleeves and trouser legs, and even then the uniforms were ridiculously baggy. This made the women feel awkward – these uniforms obviously weren’t made for them! The uniforms made them feel like they were secondary thoughts; they knew they were sticking out among their male coworkers when all they wanted to do was fit in.

The workshops revealed another problem, too. The women’s managers seemed to be treating them differently than their male coworkers. Nick was shocked when the women told him that their managers had tried to discourage them from attending the workshops, saying that they needed to concentrate on their daily tasks. However, Nick was sure that if it had been male workers who’d asked for time off to attend the workshops, then their managers would have quickly agreed.

Nick’s experiences go to show that the best way leaders can get to the root cause of gender bias is by simply taking the time and space to listen to the women affected.

Gender bias is often unconscious.

What do we actually mean when we talk about bias? Bias is when we judge someone based on a demographic group that they belong to. We associate certain groups with certain characteristics. For instance, if you judged someone to be less competent because they were over the age of 60, then you would be demonstrating age bias.

We all have characteristics we associate with being either masculine or feminine. When you meet a man, you may assume that he has certain masculine traits even if he hasn’t overtly indicated this in his behavior.

What are these gender-specific traits? Well, we associate traits like ambition, competitiveness, dominance, decisiveness, and assertiveness with masculinity. On the other hand, associate traits like kindness, understanding, gentleness, and submissiveness with femininity. Interestingly, evidence shows that we respect men for having masculine traits, but we like women for showing feminine ones.

Gender bias is a big problem for women who want to become leaders in their workplaces because we associate good leadership with having masculine traits like assertiveness, dominance, and decisiveness.

Much of this gender bias happens unconsciously – which may mean that, even though someone doesn’t think of themself as sexist, and they do their best to be fair, they can still show their biases.

Take the 2016 presidential election in the United States, when Hilary Clinton ran against Donald Trump. Research found that Americans had a problem associating the pronoun she with the word president. When presented with she and president together in a sentence, people took longer to read and understand the sentence. This was the case even with people who said they thought that Hilary Clinton would win the election! This just goes to show the complexity of gender bias.

As complex as all this might seem, bias can be reduced by implementing some simple tricks. Evidence shows that people are less likely to let bias affect their decision-making when they have clear criteria for making their decisions, and when they know that their decisions will come under scrutiny. With this in mind, you can reduce gender bias in your organization by giving managers a clear list of criteria for recruitment and promotion, as well as by holding people more accountable for their decisions about who to put into key leadership positions.

Gender bias doesn’t just damage women; it damages organizations, too.

As a leader, you might care about reducing gender bias. But the question is: How can you get everyone else in your organization to care, too? The answer is to get everyone to understand how it’s in their own self-interest to eliminate bias. Because when you kick gender bias to the curb, everyone wins.

Let’s start by taking a look at how gender bias manifests in a typical organization. As you’ve already discovered, when gender bias is at work, men are more likely to be promoted into leadership positions because we associate masculinity with being a good leader.

There’s a dark side to so-called masculine traits. Indeed, traits such as dominance, competitiveness, and egotism are not only masculine, they may also point to narcissism and psychopathology. Indeed, research indicates that narcissists and psychopaths are disproportionately men. Not only are men more likely to bully and harass their coworkers and subordinates; they’re also more likely to engage in crimes such as theft and fraud within the workplace.

But despite these deeply undesirable traits, narcissists and psychopaths are actually more likely to be promoted than their coworkers who don’t have these traits. That’s because we associate narcissism and psychopathology with masculinity, and thus we also associate these conditions with being a good leader.

But the problem is narcissists and psychopaths don’t make good leaders at all. In fact, they’re terrible at leading others. That’s because they create toxic working environments, in which the most extreme side of masculinity is displayed. In these environments, underlings relentlessly compete for recognition. Instead of working together as a team, employees become extremely self-focused and bully each other in their quest to reach the top. In other words, in a toxic workplace, everyone copies the leader. This eventually leads to destruction, and research shows that, as workplaces become more masculine and competitive, their performance decreases.

With this in mind, eliminating gender bias should form a key part of any company’s business strategy. When managers stop favoring and promoting people just because they seem to embody extreme masculinity, then many bad leaders will effectively be barred from achieving leadership positions. This will open up opportunities for more talented leaders to rise to the top; leaders who can offer much more than just dominance and egotism. These talented leaders might well be women, but they could equally be men.

The best leaders embrace both masculine and feminine traits.

Leadership that draws on extremely masculine traits, like aggression and dominance, is far from ideal. But this raises the question: What should we replace it with? Is the answer to promote leaders, either men or women, with an overtly feminine style of leadership? Let’s talk about why this isn’t a good idea, either.

Leaders that embody purely masculine traits usually practice a competent style of leadership. This sort of leader concentrates only on getting the job done, and treats the people who work for them as expendable. They create working environments that are inflexible, relentless, and tough. On the other hand, feminine leadership is typically associated with warmth, and with a nurturing atmosphere. This leader is good at relating to their subordinates and engenders a feeling of belonging and acceptance within their team.

A feminine style of leadership might sound appealing, but you can have too much of a good thing. Similar to how a competent leadership style can become toxic and overly competitive, a leader that is too warm can slide into a weak leadership style. Weak leadership is associated with submissiveness, timidity, and avoidance. These are not the sort of traits that lead to high performance.

With this in mind, it’s clear that a more balanced approach is needed. The best leadership styles draw on both masculine and feminine traits, regardless of whether the leader is male or female. When this happens, the resultant style is both warm and competent. This is a powerful combination. Research shows that when someone is perceived as competent but not warm, we envy them; when someone is warm but not competent, we pity them. And when someone is neither warm nor competent? Well, then we have contempt for them. This just goes to show how important it is for a leader to rid themselves of their stereotypical notions of gendered behavior, and to embrace a healthy, balanced leadership style instead.

A leader who’s both warm and competent will help create a healthy working environment, characterized by compassion, responsiveness, flexibility, and safety. This all adds up to better performance, and transforms leadership into a valuable resource that the whole company benefits from.

The jobs of the future will be done by diverse teams.

Is your organization at risk of extinction? It might feel like your company will be around forever, but perhaps that’s what the dinosaurs thought, too, before a massive change shook their world. The only species that survived were those who were able to adapt to the new – and suddenly very harsh – environment. If you want your business to succeed, then you’ll need to make sure that you, too, can adapt. And in today’s economy, the best way to adapt is to adopt a diversity mindset.

Embracing diversity can help make your organization more innovative and productive. How can we be so sure? Well, let’s look at the big picture. Consider the fact that between 1960 and 2008, African Americans and women were responsible for a 15 to 20 percent jump in productivity across the economy of the United States. Why? Well, this is the time period when these groups began entering the workforce in droves, boosting the diversity of companies across the country.

This being said, diversity isn’t always a panacea for boosting your organization’s performance. Research shows that team diversity, such as teammates being of different genders, only benefits performance when the work involves nonroutine cognitive tasks. These tasks could include things like research, planning, strategy, and problem-solving. To carry out these tasks well, teams need people who think in diverse ways to come up with the best solutions. However, when a team’s work involves routine tasks, where stability and efficiency are the biggest predictors of success, then homogenous, nondiverse teams perform best.

But don’t let these facts discourage you from promoting diversity within your organization. Consider that the only true area of job growth in the United States is within nonroutine cognitive work. Roles around machine learning, product development, and artificial intelligence, for instance, all require this type of work. Professor of Complexity and Management Scott C. Page has identified a number of tasks in which diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. For instance, diverse teams make more accurate predictions, generate a greater number of high-quality ideas and opinions, think more critically, are more creative, and are better at discerning truth from falsehoods than homogenous teams are. With all this in mind, introducing diversity into your organization seems like a no-brainer if you want your company to have the best chance of growing and adapting to future challenges.

Society tells girls that science and math belong to boys.

You can’t be what you can’t see. When women and girls can’t see any female role models in a particular field of work, they’re much less likely to reach for that field themselves.

The reason role models are so important is because of something called affinity bias. This describes the phenomenon that we like people more if we perceive them to be similar to us. We’re also more likely to emulate people we think are similar to us. If girls can’t see many women working in, say, STEM roles – short for science, technology, engineering, and math – then they simply won’t follow these career paths.

You might assume that things have changed in the last few decades. It’s certainly true that many people today say they hold more egalitarian and less sexist attitudes toward women’s careers than people did 50 years ago. However, as we’ve already discovered, gender bias often operates at an unconscious level.

Consider some of these shocking facts. By the time girls and boys are just three years old, they already associate certain jobs with traditional gender roles. So we may think sexism is a relic of the past, but it’s still being seamlessly transmitted to our children in their earliest years. More research shows that by the time they reach elementary school, children already believe that science and math are boys’ subjects, and not for girls. This is reflected in the fact that, even when girls perform well in math tests, they still don’t believe they are good at math.

Why do children feel this way about their gender and their abilities? Well, the answer might surprise you. In fact, parents still expect less from their daughters than their sons when it comes to their STEM capabilities. What’s more, adults tend to put girls’ achievements down to hard work, whereas they attribute boys’ success to natural talent. When our children get to high school, they’ll find their teachers give the boys 39 percent more of their attention during science class.

All this goes to show that when it comes to gender bias, we still have a mountain to climb. But don’t let this discourage you from making changes wherever you can; the benefits of equality are worth the climb.

Final summary

The key message in these blinks:

Gender bias is complicated, and because it works subconsciously most of us don’t even realize it exists. Although we say we’re egalitarian, our behavior is often driven by unconscious beliefs that hold girls and women back. But bias can be beaten. By educating employees and stakeholders about how equality boosts performance and innovation, people will begin to see how defeating gender bias isn’t just in women’s interests, but in everyone else’s, too.

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