Sunday, January 30, 2011

I am Guilty of Gender Bias

This week, representatives from one of the financial institutions my company works with stopped by to introduce Joe our new regional credit manager. My company’s president popped into my office saying:

Do you have a minute? I’d like introduce you to Joe our new rep. He really wants to meet Steve (our CFO), but Steve is busy with the auditors. I told him he will be working mainly with you anyway. Bring a couple of your business cards.
I walked into a conference room full of men and one woman. Our current rep Tim stood up and introduced me to Joe and we traded business cards. Then Joe turned towards the woman introducing her as Heather. I asked her for her card. She shook her head saying she never remembers to bring them and slouched back into her chair. In the past, I worked with both our rep and his assistant Tracey. Tracey and I never really hit it off, so I decided to make an effort with Heather. I turned to her and said, “So you will be assisting Joe?” She responded with, “No, I am Joe and Tim’s boss. I mumbled something like, “I got that wrong.” She smiled taking it all in stride, but I was disappointed in myself.

Why was I disappointed in myself?
My blog project for 2011 is “Making Women Count.” I had just finished reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins and had begun Lynn Cronin’s Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn't: Rethinking the Rules of the Game That Keep Women from Succeeding in Business reading the chapter “Still Stuck on an Unlevel Playing Field” the previous evening.

Gender bias can be summed up with these points from
- Half of all managers at US employers are female, yet when it comes to senior posts, men outnumber the women by almost 6 to 1.

- Women who comprise less than half the workforce in a business are also more likely to be pushed toward tasks that are stereotypically feminine, such as support work.

- Given equivalent positions, men are perceived as more influential than women.

So here I am, my head filled with stories of gender bias and I automatically assume the one woman in the room is a man’s assistant. How could I not be disappointed in myself? How can I begin to “Make Women Count” when my own perceptions are biased?

Did appearance make a difference in my perception?
In my
interview with Susan Bulkeley Butler, Susan talks about the importance of "packaging." She says:

Within 5-10 seconds, people have a perception of you based on how well you are put together - your confidence, your body language, the way you dress, make eye contact and shake hands and how you walk, sit and listen.

I wonder if Heather had been dressed more professionally (she was wearing a button-down shirt and a pair of khaki pants), had perfect posture and had remembered her business cards if I would have come to a different conclusion. Honestly, I don't think so. I would have assumed she was a nicely dressed assistant. It is interesting to note, Susan’s point is right on; I sized up Heather’s appearance within seconds of meeting her even taking in her hairstyle.

Was there a perceived Gender Bias towards my position?
Absolutely, as I turned to leave the conference room, I heard our President explaining to the group, who were still disappointed they were not introduced to our CFO that 99% of Joe’s contact with our company will be through me. They also didn’t realize I make 99% of the decisions regarding our account with this company. I am sure they assumed I was a support person taking direction from our CFO. Perhaps, gender bias even contributed to Heather's nonchalant behavior towards me.

Final thoughts:
Ladies - we have a lot of work to do, but on a positive note Heather does have a senior level management job in this company.


  1. I'm really surprised that Heather - making a first visit to a client - dressed and behaved that way. Rule no 1 - carry your business cards, even if you have to dig them out of the bottom drawer and blow off the dust! Had she worn a power suit and heels with a decent haircut you might have thought twice. But if she had introduced herself, shook your hand and handed you her card, you would have at least looked at her title.

    Not totally your bad.

  2. I struggled with this while interviewing potential candidates to take my old position. I really worried about hiring a man because I wasn't certain how a man would act reporting to me. In the end, the best candidate was male, and he starts on February 15th. It should be interesting.

  3. Anonymous10:17 PM

    I am a female civil engineer. I have thought a LOT about gender bias. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I, too, am guilty of gender bias. I should know better! I know what you mean. The only positive is that now that I am aware of it, hopefully I can fight against it in myself. That is what I hope anyway. Good post.

  4. Thanks everyone for your comments. Perhaps Anon is correct the first step is awareness.

    Michelle good luck with your new hire. I have hired men to work for me in the past. Both experiences were favorable.

  5. Anonymous10:09 PM

    I that your reaction can not necessarily be defined as gender bias. It's more of a reaction to the way she projected herself. But she may be creating gender bias on the part of the two men who report to her by not holding role.

  6. I have seen that males are readily accepted in positions of power while underdressing, whereas a woman who doesn't project sharp body language and decent overall appearance is less likely to be taken seriously.

    However, we do have a fair number of high level (senior management/director) roles held by females in our organization who I have observed to dress at varying levels of standard professionalism and simply don't have any issues with anyone misperceiving who holds the reins.

    And I've been lucky enough that, thus far, the gender bias I've experienced within this organization been minimal if there is any at all. I know some who insist that "when a man is in the room with another man, they don't listen to the woman," but that has not been the case with my group - I and even my reports can and have overruled the higher-ups when we make a well-reasoned case.

    There's definitely still work to do in a lot of places but there's hope yet.

  7. Ok, so I just started reading Gail Collins' book on vacation. It's very good but I think I'm going to have to put it aside until I'm not on vacation anymore--it's pissing me off. Back to Nora Ephron for the rest of the trip I think.

  8. Syd,
    I agree Gail Collins isn't a good choice for vacation reading. Which Nora Ephron book are your reading? I read "I feel bad about your neck" and thought it was informative and entertaining.

  9. The other Nora Eprhon book that was great was "I Remember Nothing." I read that and "I Feel Bad About My Neck" on vacation.

  10. Thanks Syd. I see Amazon gives I Remember Nothing a so-so review, but I think I'll check it out any way.

  11. This is really interesting. I think the fact that you were introduced to the men first may have played a part. At work it is usually the highest ranking person who is introduced first followed by his team.

    I think we are all guilty of all kinds of biases.

    Thanks for linking up for #FlashbackFriday

  12. Chasing Joy,
    Good point. I hadn't thought of that.