Gender bias illustration

Turning Gender Bias into Influence

Gender bias is a reality in today’s workplace. Here’s just one example: A recent study by Crucial Learning revealed that women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived worth by more than $15,000 when they are equally as assertive or forceful as their male counterparts. Keep in mind that assertive men are also punished, but to a much lesser degree.

This kind of emotional inequality is unfair and needs to be addressed on many levels.

The impact of COVID-19 on Gender Inequality

The effects of COVID-19 are affecting different people differently, and the implementation of equitable practices by leadership is critical in ensuring all employees are able to fully engage in their work. Existing research suggests this pandemic disproportionately affects (including, but not limited to):

  • Underrepresented racial and/or ethnic minorities
  • Parents
  • New hires
  • Those with mental and physical challenges
  • Women

Furthermore, because of traditional gender roles, home chores and responsibilities tend to disproportionately fall onto women. Even if a heteronormative family has two parents at home right now, research has shown women are picking up more household responsibilities than ever before. This is almost as much as 20 hours/week – equivalent to another part-time job!

Strategies to Combat Gender Bias at Workplace

Today’s workplaces cannot thrive if employees don’t speak up, so we need ways to decrease the social backlash people experience when they do. And, because women suffer this backlash more than men, we especially need solutions that work for women.

Ultimate solutions will require changing the cultural, legal, organisational, and social influences that make it costly for employees, especially women employees, to speak up. At the same time, people need strategies they can use today to express strong opinions while minimising social backlash.

Now the good news: individuals can take control of the situation. In fact, we found that those who use a brief framing statement that demonstrates deliberation and forethought reduce the social backlash and emotional inequality effects by 27 percent.

There are three basic framing statements to help reduce social backlash and the negative effects of emotional inequality. They are:

• Behaviour Frame: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.” This works because it sets an expectation and makes sure the statement that follows doesn’t come as a surprise. This frame helps eliminate the negative conclusion.

• Value Frame: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” This frame works by giving a positive reason for the emotion. In fact, it turns the emotion into a virtue by turning it into a measure of commitment to a shared value.

• Inoculation Frame: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.” This works by warning observers that they may have an implicit bias. It causes them to try hard to be fair or adjust their judgement in an effort to be fair.

Expressing your intent before making an assertive statement softens the blow and helps erase some of the negative connotations associated with speaking up.

Recommendations for Safe Conversations Around Gender Inequality

Speaking forcefully creates a social backlash. That backlash is amplified for women. If not managed well, this phenomenon can adversely affect an individual’s career and can prove costly to an organisation’s effectiveness. We believe the implications of this research will empower individuals and leaders to engage in and encourage candid discussion while minimising negative impacts.

For Individuals:

When an individual expresses a strong opinion, safety may break down if the listener negatively interprets the speaker’s intent. When this happens, communication suffers and the speaker loses influence. Here are a few recommended actions:

  1. Use a Behaviour or Value Frame: Use one of these frames before stating your disagreement. The Behaviour Frame demonstrates you are in control of your emotions. The Value Frame demonstrates commitment to a shared value.

  • Share Your Good Intent: Quickly and clearly explain your positive intent before you share your strong opinion. It may also be useful to explicitly state what you do not intend. For example, “I came to speak with you to try to find the best way to solve our inability to match specs. I didn’t come here to finger point or blame.”

  • Learn Additional Skills to Create Safety: High-stakes, emotional, disagreements require special skills, but these are skills anyone can learn. Begin by reading a book, participating in a webinar, or taking a course. Make sure to build in realistic practices so you’ll learn how to use your skills under pressure.

For Leaders:

Inequality can shut down even the best and bravest in your organisation. Leaders need to make it safe for employees to speak boldly for what they believe. And leaders need to acknowledge that women experience this social backlash more than men, especially when they are forceful.

Here are actions leaders can take:

  1. Open the Discussion: Shine a spotlight on the problems of social backlash and emotion inequality. Discuss the implications this research has for the day-to-day operations in your workplace. Identify times, places, and circumstances when these problems are likely and cue people in those moments to guard against them.

  • Lead the Way: Take concrete actions that show commitment to counteract the implicit bias women face in the workplace. For example, while we have reservations around using the Inoculation Frame discussed in this study, one tech company leader we interviewed thought it was an excellent tool for women leaders to use to combat bias. When expressing a strong position, this executive suggested, leaders might say, “I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. It can be risky for women to speak assertively in many environments. I don’t want that to be the case here, so I’m going to lead out by expressing my point of view directly and I hope others will do the same.” Reciting such a statement would send a clear message: be aware that an implicit bias against women likely exists, it has no place in our organisation, and I’m committed to eradicating it.

  • Change the Norm: The norm in most organisations is to focus on the content of what people are saying and to avoid discussing any strong emotions they are showing. The problem with this norm is that, even though people don’t discuss the emotions, they guess at what the emotions mean and assume the worst—that the person is out of control. A healthier norm is to ask about strong emotions whenever you see them. The results of this study suggest that when a person explains his or her forcefulness, it prevents observers from assuming the worst.

  • Create Times and Places: Create times, places, and circumstances where speaking forcefully is expected—even required. For example, have an agenda item that asks people to speak forcefully—from their hearts—about the issue being discussed. This approach provides a clear external reason for speakers’ passion and thus reduces observers’ tendency to assume they’d lost their tempers.

Invest in Skill Building: Training can be a powerful way to help others learn the skills they need in order to create conversational safety. This benefits both sides in a conversation and allows individuals and teams to discuss tough issues that affect organisational results across the board—from quality to safety to employee engagement and morale. We’ve distilled the high-leverage skills for speaking up and holding others accountable into our award-winning training programs Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue and Crucial Conversations for Accountability, and the New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. These resources have a proven track record of eliminating cultures of silence and leading organisations to results.

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