Break the Bias Today.... and Every Day...
Updated: Mar 1
The festivities of International Women’s Day (IWD) and Women’s History Month have wrapped up, so what now? How to carry the theme forward? Please find below a few key insights that have come out of the events I’ve been part of around breaking the bias and what you can do specifically to keep this alive for the rest of the year.
I observed some criticism around International Women’s Day this year. I wonder if you’ve heard any of these?
“Why do women get a day?”
This one is not unique to 2022 but this year I heard it in an inclusive leadership program. The sentiment is that it doesn’t feel fair, as in, “why do women get a day when men don’t?” What’s behind this statement is often feelings of exclusion. I’ve worked with many male leaders around the world who, when they feel safe to share honestly, express deep concern about what they perceive to be reverse discrimination. Promoting and hiring people because they are women goes against their understanding of meritocracy and the challenge here is rooted in unacknowledged inequities that women face in the workplace and in some cases miscommunicated strategies. One way to address this head on is to make at least some events inclusive to all employees, so everyone has an opportunity to better understand some of the inequities women face.
“Why do women only get a day?”
Here we go to the other extreme with the view that compressing complex issues onto a single day means that for the other 364 days of the year the issues don’t get the attention they deserve. Full disclosure - this was the theme of my undergraduate thesis where I raised concern around perpetuating the myth that inclusion should be the responsibility on the shoulders of already marginalized groups. I also pointed out the risk that stereotypes could be reinforced instead of challenged when non-group member audiences take part in such events with a limited context. While these points are potential risks, after more practical experience with IWD events, I see their place.
"IWD events are blatantly artificial."
I’ve seen critiques labelling IWD festivities as “blatantly artificial” and rooted in commercial activities more than having meaningful discussion around women’s liberation. I get this. For example, I once was part of a company event in a male-dominated industry that accepted sponsorship from a make up company that provided foundation to all female employees. “Cover up” felt like a bit of a contradictory message when the theme I was there to discuss was around how to show up at work as yourself. On gifting, I loved seeing Olivia Plotnicks' post on gifting full time employees with a one-year subscription to MasterClass for personal development. What a great way to empower her team.
"Enough with using words like 'celebrate' and 'empower.'"
There were some strong critiques this year sharing this message, to stop using broad words that don't carry with them specific meaning, and to start using words like 'pay fairly,' 'invest in,' 'promote.'
A twitter account was created to call out any UK companies that were making IWD posts on their gender pay gap. “Stop posting platitudes. Start fixing the problem.”
"The break the bias theme is a weapon of mass distraction."
Articles have argued that when we focus on big, broad and ambiguous topics like Break the Bias, we fail to make sustainable change towards gender equality. Some have boycotted The official site for IWD, pointing out it is a private company with little information available about it. It's been recommended to follow the UN Women theme, which in 2022 is: "Changing Climates: Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.”
I've heard these critiques and appreciate where they are coming from. Looking at what has come out of the events I've been part of, however, I see IWD events as important. Creating space for people to come together and feel connected is important. Especially now. Here are three practical and specific things we discussed that you can try:
1. Co-creating ground rules in teams / collaborative groups.
Co-creating ground rules that craft how you work together is a great practice. In a 2016 HBR article, Roger Schwarz highlighted some key practices to consider, such as ask genuine questions and focus on interests (not positions). Brainstorming these together is inclusive and can ensure people are set up to do their best work in their own way. Having some basic best practices in mind is also helpful.
But you may be thinking, what does this have to do with breaking the bias?
Having some ground rules for "if...when..." scenarios around common biases and microaggressions normalizes how they will be handled.
Interrupt interruptions - given women are interrupted more frequently than men, you can have a rule that makes it appropriate to stop an interruption and ensure the person interrupted has space to complete their point
Share the air time - Notice who is speaking and who is not. Create space for different voices. And on that, ensuring there is opportunity for people to collaborate through writing (as opposed to only orally in meetings) is another great way to ensure every voice is heard and people contribute their best work in their best way.
Share organizing / administrative responsibilities - Let's rotate notetaking. Let's rotate team event organization. Notice when people are getting nominated to complete supportive / administrative tasks.
Ensure credit is given to the right person, and that group efforts are acknowledged - In one event this came up as a very common occurrence where a female member of the team presents an idea and then someone else later brings it in and gets credited with coming up for it.
And as the Roger Schwarz says importantly in the HBR article:
"Agree that everyone is responsible for helping each other use the ground rules. Teams are too complex to expect that the formal leader alone can identify every time a team member is acting at odds with a ground rule. In effective teams, all members share this responsibility, meaning teams should agree on how individuals will intervene when they see others not using a ground rule."
Having ground rules means that those who are facing bias aren't the only ones tasked with calling it out.
2. When you see something, say something.
While this can be easy to say, it's hard to do, for a number of reasons.
Amy Edmondson, the thought leader on psychological safety, shares this telling chart in her book, The Fearless Organization about why it can be easier to stay silent.
In the context of observing bias (especially when it's not directed specifically to you or a group you fit into), it can feel highly uncomfortable and awkward in the moment, but can feel tempting to just hold our breath and let the moment pass. To choose to lean into discomfort, especially in teams that haven't made ground rules around this, requires a lot of courage. It requires courage because calling things out have a risk of conflict, of damaging relationships, of being judged and labelled.
It can be hard to know how to respond appropriately in different situations. In IWD events, we talked about examples such as:
an inappropriate comment or joke,
receiving biased feedback in a performance review or interview,
and where assumptions have been made based on stereotypes.
Other themes that came out here were:
Yes to calling out biased behavior and it's impact (When you said X, it had Y impact.)
No to calling out the person (You are X).
Yes to calling inappropriate behavior out.
No to doing it in toxic way.
I shared some anecdotes on these in events and will be happy to share more of them in upcoming blog posts.
3. Be part of a group where you can share experiences and gain ongoing support.
Women who attended the events I was part of shared comments like:
"Resonating soooo much,"
"The honesty of the conversation has touched me deeply"
"Nice to not feel so alone."
Connection is important. Something fascinating happens when spending time with other women. On the one hand, there is a strong feeling like, "I am not alone." - that feeling, especially at tough moments, provides fresh energy and perspective around shared lived experiences. On the other hand, such occasions create opportunities to notice our uniqueness. Not in a game of comparison where we label better than / worse than, but to appreciate how your own journey is unique and where some of your individual strengths lie. This clarity brings confidence in how to show up in your day to day.
Get involved in your company's Employee Resource Group (or start one if there isn't one). Join a Lean In Circle, take part in a book club or a local community group. Find places outside of your friend group to hear the experiences of other women and share your own stories too. Doing so can be key to catching yourself in unnecessary patterns of self-criticism and creates ongoing sources of learning, expansion in self-awareness, and connection.
I can't wait to bring women together in person in Bali, Indonesia for a retreat!
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If you haven't seen the other two blog posts on breaking the bias:
What Does it Mean to Break the Bias and
Block a Top Bias Faced by Women at Work with this Simple Tool,
I invite you to also check those out.