How can women establish credibility when facing gender bias?
One of the topics I cover in the Influence Masterclass, is how to establish oneself as an expert. However, a discussion about establishing credibility is not complete without understanding gender differences and how they can impact outcomes. Many women have been taught since childhood the virtues of being humble, nice, accommodating and respectful. The problem is that "niceness" is a double-edged sword for women, because if they are perceived to be too nice or sweet, they may not being taken seriously in the professional context. Moreover, if women violate these gender stereotypes they may be punished for this and labeled "aggressive," something that adds a whole another level of complexity. Research shows us that it's important for people to like us. In fact, when people first meet us they judge us based on 2 important criteria: 1) Can I trust this person? (assessing warmth) 2) Can I respect this person? (assessing competence) Liking and trusting are extremely important ingredients for making good first impressions and building relationships (any good salesperson will tell you this). Yet, in professional settings, liking is not enough. Especially if you're a woman or someone who comes from a minority group. Liking, in fact, can backfire and reinforce old-age stereotypes. Being too nice and accommodating as well as humble about your achievements, can reinforce the assumptions that you don't have them. Facebook's corporate Managing Unconscious Bias training highlights research about several common biases that women (and racial minorities) face at work:
Performance Bias: Men’s performance tends to be overestimated in comparison to women counterparts. This is especially acute for women of color. Men are judged on potential where women are judged on past results. In traditionally male-dominated industries, such as technology, the bias may be even more evident.
Performance Attribution Bias: Men’s success is often attributed to them being “naturally talented,” whereas women are presumed to have “gotten lucky.” Women are less likely to receive credit for their ideas and are interrupted more often during team interactions. Those who are subject to performance attribution bias are likely to suffer from lower self-confidence, feel like a fraud or experience imposter syndrome.
Maternity Bias: Mothers experience an unconscious bias in the workplace that fathers and women without children do not. There's a general assumption that mothers can't be good employees. Motherhood (and the potential of it - getting engaged, marrying, talking about having kids) can trigger performance bias.
Bias is not going away anytime soon but being aware of existing biases can help us tackle work situations and establish credibility more strategically. There are several courses of action: a) Stay away from biased people. This one is virtually impossible. Most people (including yours truly) are biased during first impressions because they are using their limited past information to make sense of the world around them. b) Prepare to address bias heads on. To counteract biases in first interactions, you need to be more deliberate in terms of highlighting the strengths that people won’t expect of you. Be more explicit about your credentials and past achievements to address their potential concerns. Share your passions and work-related interests. When people get to know you, your opinions, personality and capacities, the biases will mostly likely disappear (unless they are really die-hard sexists/misogynists/racists, in which case you should probably stay away as much as possible from them) because they will be able to substitute their uninformed assumptions with real impressions. c) For mothers (and some fathers), there is an additional step: you need to figure out if your desired (or existing) workplace gives you the balance you need between work and family life. And then be direct about communicating this, as well as career goals. For example: if you feel like you don't need any additional flexibility in comparison to non-parent employees, be explicit about it, because people WILL make assumptions about your commitment. If you do want more flexibility and still want to be valued like everybody else, you better look for a workplace that is family-friendly and where flexibility won't be penalized.