How to Detect Subtle Gender Bias in the Workplace

A team at work.

Here’s a riddle to test yourself for subtle gender bias in the workplace. 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 women. 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.

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 this type of gender bias in the workplace, she places the blame on stereotypes.

It’s also a form of implicit bias, which is something people exhibit 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  implicit or explicit gender bias is most likely at play.

Subtle Gender Bias in the Workplace can Have Serious Consequences

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 in the workplace. 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 any gender bias training should not only cover common areas where gender bias in the workplace may exist, but it 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.

Continue to Strengthen Your Company Culture

These suggestions for combatting gender bias in the workplace can help business owners increase employee morale, retention, and engagement. Learn more ways to create an inclusive company culture with hiring and management advice from Monster.