Updated: May 3
In the spirit of International Women's Day and this years theme around break the bias, I'd like to share a practical tool you can use to block gender bias.
A few years ago I was in California visiting Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research to discuss trends in developing and advancing female talent within leading organizations. I can vividly recall learning about the bias blocking tool I’m keen to share with you here. Why? Because I could relate to it so personally.
I wonder if you'll relate in the same way.
I had recently delivered a keynote at a Fortune 500 regional townhall. The CEO had invited me to share about developing women leaders and some work we were doing internally in their company.
Despite the large-scale event, on stage the CEO was informal and when it came to my part, he kicked off with a few sentences to set the context and then turned it over to me with something like:
“It’s been great working with Em, her passion is evident. Over to you, please go ahead and introduce yourself, as you’ll do it better than I can.”
How would you respond in a situation like that?
I continued with the casual tone and did a very brief self-introduction before diving into what I was there to share.
After the talk, something wasn't sitting right with me. It didn't seem to land with the impact I had intended. The feedback from the client wasn’t critical. They said I’d had "good energy." They were satisfied.
But I went down a bit of a rabbit hole - replaying the talk over and over again in my mind. To an unhealthy extent. I was ruminating over it. Unpacking everything I said and how I said it. I went back to the client for more feedback. I went to the women I’d been working with in the program internally that had attended the event to hear their thoughts. They all felt it was fine. They told me I was "an engaging speaker".
Fine? I don’t want fine!
It was learning about the below bias blocker that pulled me out a self-critical loop to see larger dynamics at play that I had completely failed to notice and acknowledge. The Managing Director of the now VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab shared:
When women get powerfully introduced they are perceived to be competent without the same backlash they face when they assertively self-introduce, or fail to do so.
What’s behind this:
Women are frequently put into a double bind.
Tightrope bias involves pressures to behave in ways that align with gender stereotypes where women receive penalties when they do AND when they don’t.
As Joan Williams wrote in The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM (hbr.org):
"Women need to behave in masculine ways in order to be seen as competent—but women are expected to be feminine. So women find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent, and too masculine to be likable."
It’s leaves a narrower space of appropriate behaviors for women at work, that can be very difficult to get right.
"You’re too aggressive" (and that isn’t very likeable)
"You’re not outspoken enough" (and that doesn’t make you leadership material).
I’ve even had clients tell me about getting contradictory feedback from the SAME presentation –
“You were too pushy with your agenda”
“You were too consultative in your approach”
Well, which is it?
It’s one of the reasons I put together the deep dive coaching package because it's a great opportunity to get a fresh perspective. And often that is exactly what you need. A fresh perspective! Trying to decipher contradictory feedback you've received and make it actionable is challenging.
So back to the story of the keynote.
The leader hadn’t introduced me. He’d asked me to introduce myself. I unconsciously took an approach to adhere to gender stereotypes, and it meant that I showed up as likeable to the audience. But it appeared that it was at the expense of my perceived competence, which influenced how my message landed. This gave me something to reflect on. I reached out to the CEO and booked in a call where I shared the research with him. He was fascinated and started implementing it immediately.
Introduce women by clearly acknowledging their expertise and qualifications. And not just in big events, even in a small client meeting. Establish credibility by legitimatizing competence.
Do it for everyone. Get in the habit. Because it doesn't harm men in any way to practice this. And you'll build stronger partnerships and deepen trust. But for women it makes a big difference. There are costs to showing up as unlikeable, just as there are obvious costs to showing up as not competent enough. The stakes are real.
Recently someone reached out to me for input after feeling frustrated trying to get more female speakers secured for a conference in a male-dominated industry. He reflected on the myriad of reasons why women don't agree to attend. "One couldn't travel during the pandemic, one said she didn't have time, another said it's outside her priorities. What's really going on?"
I sent him this study by Files et al. The study found that women were introduced more informally than men at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds. “Differential formality in speaker introductions may amplify isolation, marginalization and professional discomfiture express by women faculty in academic medicine.” This study has been replicated in different STEM fields.
"Do what is within your control" I suggested. "Make your conferences more inclusive by educating your speakers and moderators on how to block bias in introductions."
It turns out there was a lot to learn from that keynote experience after all.
For one, there is the simple tool to introduce people by legitimizing what they bring.
It is also helpful to remember how hard it can be to walk on a tightrope. Sometimes it can feel easy to become overly self-critical. Even I had helped others in similar situations to zoom out and see larger systems at play, I had failed to do that for myself. Let's get better at catching ourselves heading down this unproductive path. Because you're not alone in this. We're not alone in this.
Do you have a colleague or friend that will relate to this?
Do you know allies who want to better support women?