Gender bias in the workplace: Practical steps to take for change
Published: Jun 09, 2017 By Seema Sharma
Recent surveys suggest only 25% of senior business roles are held by women worldwide. Academia shows parallels to the business world, with senior academic positions, especially in STEM fields showing even less gender diversity than in commerce. So why is progress so slow? And, on a practical level, what positive steps can women and men take collectively to tackle the barriers to success in the workplace. We explore insights from experts on how to progress, ranging from dealing with the impact of unconscious bias to overt discrimination.
According to a recent study , only one in four global senior business roles is held by a woman in 2017. The annual survey, conducted by Grant Thornton, concludes that, whilst this is at an all time high, it represents an increase of only 1% from the previous year. The latter demonstrates positive, but slow progress in gender imbalance in the workplace. Although, this modest growth is somewhat negated by the other key survey outcome — an increase in the number of businesses that have no women in senior roles from 33% to 34%.
It may come as a surprise that emerging economies, including Eastern Europe and the ‘MINT’ economies, (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), are leading the change in diversity, whilst the G7 countries continue to lag behind. Major economies— for example the US, UK and Germany, have 23%, 19% and 18% of senior roles held by women respectively. In contrast, Russia stands at 47% and Indonesia 46%.
This comes at a time where there is increasing evidence that gender diversity in senior management serves to benefit business financially. A Credit Suisse Research Institute report from 2016  showed that global businesses where at least half of the key “front office” positions, such as CEO, COO, CFO and strategy heads, were held by women had higher annual returns, better stock performance, and higher payouts of dividends. The report examined 28,000 executives at 3,000 companies in 40 countries, known as the “Gender 3000 database.” Though the authors mentioned they were making no claims on causalities — the results were seen as striking, nonetheless.
In academia, the picture shows some parallels to the business world for gender bias and there is still an imbalance among the number of top academic positions held by women. In a European Commission study , over half of all PhD graduates were female, excluding science, mathematics and computing (here the figure was lower — 42%), and engineering, manufacturing and construction (also a lower figure — 28%). This numerical dominance was rapidly lost as women moved through more senior posts in academia. Only 20% of full professorships were held by women, which fell to 11% for scientific, mathematics and computing and 8% for engineering and related fields. Further global figures can be found in a report by Catalyst: Quick Take: Women in Academia, July 9, 2015 .
"Only 20% of full professorships were held by women, which fell to 11% for scientific, mathematics and computing and 8% for engineering and related fields..."
Although progress may seem slow, are there practical things that women and men can do to ensure that there is continued progress and improved opportunities? With issues that range from dealing with unconscious bias that manifests itself in subtle comments in day-to-day interactions like meetings, to overt discrimination at a higher level requiring different approaches, answers aren’t always straight-forward. We take a look at some tactics that have shown to be successful and draw on expert research opinions in the field.
Communication and networking
Women and men have been shown to have different communication styles, with men typically being more direct in expressing their opinions or needs. Common female complaints include being talked over in meetings or stating an idea, which is then picked up by another male colleague in the room and rephrased as their own.
"Female staff in the Obama administration in the US, famously adopted an innovative strategy they called “amplification” in meetings to tackle this: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author..."
Female staff in the Obama administration in the US, famously adopted an innovative strategy they called “amplification” in meetings to tackle this: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This ensured that the men in the room acknowledged the contribution and furthermore, denied them the chance to claim an idea as their own later. This proved effective and balanced the dynamic of the meetings. 
Senior managers can be pro-active by praising good ideas in advance and encouraging individuals who wouldn’t necessarily put themselves forward to speak at a meeting.
Don’t be a bystander, speak up
There is recent evidence to show that a bottom-up approach, where employees agree to step in and support each other and not be a bystander to put downs or biased comments may help to initiate and maintain change in a workplace. These comments may not be significant enough to raise with HR, but nevertheless help fuel bias.
I recently attended a conference ‘Collaborating for Gender Equality in STEM’, where Dame Barbara Stocking DBE, spoke to give some excellent examples of how colleagues can work together to negate bias. Dame Stocking has held several high-ranking posts including, CEO of Oxfam, NHS Regional Director for the South East and is currently President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. She was awarded a CBE for health services in 2000 and a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) for humanitarian services in the 2008. In her experience, she mentioned women leaders tend to offer more long-term solutions that require more engagement than male counterparts. This can meet some resistance, as the more traditional approach is quick fixes and increased financial investment.
In one instance, she was criticised without grounds, for amongst other things, not being ‘serious enough’ in the solution she offered at a board meeting. She was supported by another male colleague who refused to be a bystander and said, ‘That’s not what I heard. What I heard is, Barbara has a different way of doing things to you.’ She mentioned that in her experience having colleagues, both male and female that speak up against low-grade bullying or inappropriate comments, can provide much needed support and change workplace culture.
Dame Stocking emphasised other tactics she’s employed to handle day-to-day biased comments that included using humour in a retort or simply ignoring the comment and getting on with business.
I personally recall an instance in the last year, when I met with the CBO of a company who I was negotiating a contract price with, who suggested that he should ‘ring my father to try and get a better deal.’ Rather than get offended, (which I could easily do, as an experienced business professional in my 40’s), I opted to use humour suggesting that my father would be far from impressed and moved back to business.
Being aware of networking styles
Reports suggest that women and men tend to approach networking very differently. Women network when they have a specific purpose to help someone, or impart and receive a specific piece of information. They also tend to gravitate towards speaking to other women. They may be socialised to not putting themselves forward in certain situations and this is something that needs attention. Additionally after-work family commitments mean they are more likely no to be able to attend certain events (This applies to some men as well, of course). Employers can help improve networking opportunities and remove bias by holding them within working hours. Additionally, organising events with a ‘purpose’ attached, eg a skill or fact swap could help in this scenario.
Men in contrast have been shown to actively network informally a lot of the time. They also have a tendency to pass on information about individuals they know who are appropriate for a specific task or role to other men. They may feel uncomfortable approaching women they don’t know, in case it gets misinterpreted.
Encouraging diversity from the top-down
Bias in how merit and leadership are defined
Many employers mention that they hire and promote on merit, but it’s important for them to recognise whose merit that is and whether it is defined within narrow criteria that hold an inherent gender bias.
"Many employers mention that they hire and promote on merit, but it’s important for them to recognise whose merit that is and whether it is defined within narrow criteria that hold an inherent gender bias."
There is considerable evidence that men benefit in the workplace from stereotypical male values and communication styles being associated with leadership. Employers can help by promoting and encouraging diverse leadership styles across the organisation. Additionally, recognising that there is a difference in the styles that men and women use, and they are equally valuable in an organisation.
Employer initiatives and encouraging collaboration
It’s critical to note that there is considerable research to support the fact that gender diversity in the workplace is important to men. For example, a study by Mckinsey in 2012  found that more than half of the (predominantly male) CEO’s of 235 European companies surveyed, saw gender diversity as one of their top ten priorities. So it makes sense to encourage initiatives to raise awareness and participation for both men and women.
The conclusions of a research project ‘Collaborating with Men’ led by Dr. Jill Armstrong at Murray Edwards College, at the University of Cambridge  raises a number of practical steps to tackle gender bias through men and women working cooperatively. It states that male role models are critical to transforming workplace culture for it to be more inclusive, but often face backlash if they take action. They recommend leaders should help by rewarding and supporting men who make changes to support gender parity. The tone should be set from the top of an organisation.
Another effective approach is for leaders to emphasise the benefits of diversity in the context of the business. An example would be to highlight that a company’s clients are diverse, so it’s important to reflect that diversity in staff who liaise with them.
Employers can take active steps to understand unconscious gender bias arising in their organisation by looking at data and integrating this with personal stories. One such suggestion, featured in Dr. Armstrong’s research involved using a detailed retrospective on how things were undertaken, and who had decision-making power after a project is finished. This can help identify gender bias in practice and uncover valuable insights.
"Employers can take active steps to understand unconscious gender bias arising in their organisation by looking at data and integrating this with personal stories..."
The concept of reverse mentoring is also seen as being beneficial, where a junior member of staff regularly feeds back on day-to-day scenarios and action needed to a more senior manager. Pairing individuals of different genders for mentoring and skill swaps may also be effective.
Many of the research reports referred to here state that women have a tendency to downplay their success to others. The support offered through mentoring or a sponsorship programme can, therefore, prove extremely valuable for encouraging them to speak about their accomplishments.
Senior managers should make themselves aware whether individuals in their teams have additional time demands associated with childcare. Simple steps like moving meetings that are likely to overrun from the very end of the day to avoid the school run can help. At the other end of the spectrum, they should not assume that individuals would not want to attend a conference or a meeting abroad just because they have a family without speaking to them first. The choice should still be made available.
There is no quick-fix solution to the global gender disparity observed in many workplaces. There are multiple facets to help improve the progress that is slowly being made.
In conclusion, employers need to take positive actions to set the tone of an organisation and address the bias. Diverse leadership styles and ideas of merit, not just those with traditional male characteristics, should be encouraged. There is clear evidence to suggest that having gender parity on a leadership team provides financial and business benefits to an organisation. Women and men can have inherently different approaches and this diversity needs to be embraced, before real change can happen.
Practical steps for tackling gender bias in the workplace
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- Women in Business 2017. International Business Report. Grant Thornton: https://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights/articles/women-in-business-2017/
- CS Gender 3000: the reward for change: http://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=5A7755E1-EFDD-1973-A0B5C54AFF3FB0AE
- She Figures 2015: Gender in Research and Innovation: https://ec.europa.eu/research/swafs/pdf/pub_gender_equality/she_figures_2015-final.pdf
- Quick Take: Women in Academia. New York: Catalyst, July 9, 2015: http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-academia
- White House women are now in the room where it happens. The Washington Post. September 9, 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/13/white-house-women-are-now-in-the-room-where-it-happens/
- McKinsey Report; Women Matter 2012: http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/women-matter
- Collaborating with men: Changing workplace culture to be more inclusive for women. Dr. Jill Armstrong et al., October 20, 2016: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/news/collaborating-with-men-report-talks-about-changing-workplace-culture
NB: The author notes that other biases, (LGBT and racial to name a few), also arise in the workplace and can intersect and influence gender bias, but they are beyond the scope of this current article.