Watch out for subtle gender bias in the workplace

Here’s a riddle to test yourself for subtle gender bias: You’re doing your job, minding your own business, when a manager reprimands you for a minor mistake. Is the manager bossy or decisive?

If you said bossy, you chose a word frequently (and unfairly) used to describe a female. Men, on the other hand, are more often called decisive in the same scenario. Using different words to describe men and women isn’t just a reflection of gender differences in the workplace, it’s often a telltale sign of gender bias.

Yes, word choice can reveal gender bias

Kim Elsesser, author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition that’s Dividing the Workplace, says it happens all the time. Women in management deal with it more than men. For example, she says, female managers are often labeled “bossy,” “bitchy,” “moody,” or “petty” by disciplined employees. “Male and female leaders essentially behave in a very similar manner, yet are described quite differently,” Elsesser says. When it comes to these types of gender differences in the workplace, she places the blame on stereotypes.

It’s also a form of implicit bias, which is something everybody exhibits unwittingly. Nobody is completely objective because we’ve all been programmed from birth to think and act different ways. However, this implicit bias can lead to problems when it comes out in dismissive behaviors, such as:

  • Making a woman take notes at a meeting
  • Expecting her to answer the phone
  • Telling female employees to get refreshments
  • Giving women menial tasks, like cleaning up the office kitchen

There’s nothing wrong with anybody performing such tasks—if that’s part of their job description. But sometimes, the tasks are assigned to a woman rather than a man for no good reason. That’s when either an implicit or explicit gender bias is most likely at play.

Subtle gender bias can have serious consequences

Add up enough subtle discriminations, and it starts to look like a lawsuit. But that’s not the worst part. Legal damages are simply a measure of additional, real losses.

Joan Williams, the co-author of What Works for Women at Work, says piling “office housework” on a woman can derail a career. “It means that women end up working even longer hours because they have to do the housework, and sometimes it means they cannot get access to higher-value work,” Williams says.

It takes more to ensure equality in the workplace than equal pay or a better parental leave policy. Employers can also fight against subtle gender bias. Companies need to:

  • Give women equal time in meetings
  • Assign office “housework” to men as much as women
  • Have more men plan office parties and bring refreshments
  • Train employees on implicit bias and subtle discrimination

When it comes to training, it’s important to remember that subtle gender bias can manifest itself in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations. To be effective, then, any gender bias training should not only cover common areas where gender bias may exist, but should also anticipate situations where it could arise in your specific workplace. It should also expose your workforce to techniques like the Jigsaw Method, which helps to reduce biases by making individuals dependent on one another to accomplish a common goal.

Tackle gender bias in your workplace with an effective hiring strategy

Everybody knows it’s wrong to harass, discriminate, or otherwise treat people unfairly based on their gender or sexual orientation. Good employers do something about it by addressing explicit and implicit bias based on gender differences in the workplace, which helps protect against these more blatant behaviors. Hiring and recruitment is one area where you can really make a difference. Get the latest in job market trends and hiring strategies by checking out Monster Hiring Solutions.