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Nice girl or competent b*tch? Understanding and addressing second-generation gender bias at work.

As she approached the office on Monday morning, Sarah* felt a mix of anticipation and nervousness. It was her annual performance review, a moment she had been preparing for diligently over the past year. She had exceeded her targets, spearheaded successful projects, and received glowing feedback from colleagues and clients alike. In the first 10-minutes of the meeting Mark*, her manager, had all praises for Sarah. "Your numbers are impressive; you are doing great" he remarked. As a person committed to continuous development, Sarah was expecting some constructive feedback as well. But Mark's words in the next couple of minutes blindsided her. "You know, Sarah, I've heard some feedback from your team. They say you're a bit... aggressive in your approach. Maybe you should consider toning it down a notch".

Sarah is not alone in this experience. I too have been asked to smile more, not be so direct, and called ‘bossy’ numerous times through my career, particularly when I was starting out. In a report by the Centre for Creative Leadership, they found that 33% of women reported they’ve received feedback that they’re “bossy” at work. Only about 17% of men received this feedback from among a sample of 100 with a 50-50 spilt between men and women. A study by Roberts and colleagues in 2019 found that women who speak up are more likely to be labelled as aggressive (as opposed to assertive), particularly when they belonged to an ethnic minority.  

In Sarah’s case, over the years, as she slowly climbed up the corporate ladder, she has been labelled aggressive, bossy, unfeeling, non-nurturing and difficult to work with. She had also been called professional, competent, confident, articulate, results-oriented, unbiased, and decisive. Could it be that the qualities which made her an exceptional employee and leader were viewed negatively because they didn't align with traditional expectations of femininity? Despite embodying traits commonly associated with competence and leadership, like Sarah did, these attributes were seemingly overlooked or criticised when displayed by women and praised and rewarded when displayed by men. Given this pervasive patriarchal lens through which qualities are evaluated, is there a viable solution to addressing this unconscious gender bias?

First generation gender bias

First-generation gender bias refers to overt discrimination, or explicit beliefs and attitudes that directly disadvantage individuals based on their gender. This includes things like unequal pay, limited access to certain roles or opportunities, and overtly sexist language or behaviour. Mere decades ago, it was not uncommon to have discriminatory practices written into employment documentation. There are many examples of this through history. For instance, in 1973, the Cleveland Board of Education v. Lafleur case appealed against the discrimination of pregnant public-school teachers in Cleveland, Ohio, and Chesterfield County, Virginia in the United States. Pregnant teachers were required to take unpaid leave five months before expected childbirth, with return eligibility (pending physician approval) at the start of the next semester after the baby turned three months. The Kraszewski v. State Farm Insurance Co. case, litigated by Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho over 15 years in California, was a gender discrimination class action resulting in a consent decree after trial, providing extensive injunctive relief to female employees who were rejected or deterred for roles as Insurance sales agents.

Second-generation gender bias

Today, such discriminatory practices are illegal and therefore, uncommon in most developed nations. However, we are now facing covert barriers to gender equality, equity, and inclusion at work. Second-generation gender bias (SGGB) encompasses organisational practices that, while seemingly neutral, actually mirror patriarchal values and life circumstances associated with men who have traditionally held dominance in work environments. This leads to hard-to-detect unfair treatment of women compared to men. According to research by Greenwald and Krieger in 2006, unlike overt bias, which refers to an individual’s general attitudes or stereotypes, SGGB is embedded in a set of social relations enacted across day-to-day practices.

Examples of second-generation gender bias

  1. Unequal access to opportunities - Women may have limited access to high-profile projects, mentorship programmes, or leadership positions compared to their male counterparts. Women tend to engage in voluntary positions/duties such as being chairs of wellbeing committees, initiating CSR projects that are not always taken seriously when assessing competence, particularly for leadership roles.

  2. Double standards in evaluation - Women's performance may be scrutinised more critically or judged against different standards than men's, leading to unequal evaluations and fewer advancement opportunities. For example, a McKinsey report revealed that men are frequently recruited or advanced based on their perceived potential, whereas women are often judged primarily on their past experience and performance history. Because of that, women tend to have a harder time moving across roles and organisations.

  3. Unconscious bias in hiring and promotion - Subtle biases in decision-making processes, such as assuming women are less committed due to family responsibilities, can result in fewer women being hired or promoted compared to equally qualified men. Whether we mean to intentionally or not, it is common to see many biases in our discourse about pregnant women or mothers, for example.

  4. Work-life balance expectations - Expectations around availability and dedication to work, often influenced by traditional gender roles, may penalise women who prioritise family or personal life, leading to their contributions being undervalued or overlooked compared to men. A huge contributor to this is the fact that even in the 21st century women carry the vast majority of household and childcare responsibilities. Without educating the wider society about gender-roles, we will not be able to fully address the role-related implications in the workplace.

  5. Gendered language and behaviours – Language matters but is often overlooked. Workplace norms that favour assertive or aggressive communication styles associated with masculinity can disadvantage women who communicate differently, leading to their ideas being overlooked or dismissed. Likewise, women who display traits associated with masculinity such as speaking up or being decisive can be labelled negatively like in Sarah’s case. So, it seems that there is no win for women whatever end of the masculine-feminine spectrum we sit at, unless we challenge these gender-based narratives.  

What can we do to reduce second-generation gender bias

It is a huge step forward that we now have strong legislations that stop organisations from upholding discriminatory practices against women and other minorities alike. However, we have a long way to go before we can achieve equality, equity and inclusion at work. Change starts with acknowledging that there is a problem and challenging the organisational status quo. It also starts with identifying and challenging one’s own limiting beliefs and creating structural changes across all steps of the organisational life cycle.

  1. Educate everyone - Create meaningful discourse around SGGB at work across all levels of the organisation, specially focusing on executive leadership. This includes education about SGGB, its impact and the importance of addressing it, including open conversations about privilege, unconscious biases, and their influence on decision-making processes and interactions within the workplace.

  2. Challenge language - Address and challenge language both at the institutional and individual levels is important. The words we use, and our perceptions are interrelated. So, to evolve perceptions, we need to also challenge the words we use in describing groups of people, their behaviours, and characteristics. An assertive woman is not ‘bossy’ – she is merely assertive, just like her male counterparts. A woman calling out bad behaviour in a structured way doesn’t need to calm down; likewise, a man displaying aggressive behaviour at work (think Wolf of Wall Street) should not be venerated for such displays.

  3. Focus on leadership self-awareness building - Provide training and resources to build self-awareness among leaders regarding their own biases and assumptions related to gender. Offer opportunities for leaders to reflect on their leadership styles, behaviours, and attitudes towards gender equality in the workplace. Leaders set the tone for organisational norms, so change needs to trickle down from the top levels down.

  4. Build leadership purpose – Consider equity when it comes to recruitment for support roles versus roles that contribute to leadership. Foster an organisational culture that values and supports diverse leadership styles and contributions. There is more than one recipe for leadership success. Nurturing and collaborative leaders (traditionally associated with femininity) can be as successful any other positive approach to leadership.

  5. Re-evaluate the C-suite recruitment process – There is a reason why there are less women as we go up the leadership hierarchy. Examine and re-evaluate the recruitment and selection processes for C-suite positions to ensure they are fair, equitable, and inclusive. Us humans have an affinity towards others that reflect us. So, it is supporting that often in executive boards, you see men who pretty much reflect each other in terms of characteristics, preferences, thinking patterns and career trajectories. Being aware of this allows us to look beyond our own networks to recruit diverse people to high-level leadership positions.

In summary, combating SGGB is essential for creating workplaces that leverage diversity. Organisations must educate, challenge norms, foster self-awareness, redefine leadership, and reassess recruitment processes to address subtle inequalities resulting from SGGB. Perhaps one day, competence and amiability will no longer sit on opposite sides of one spectrum for women. Perhaps one day, nurturing and collaborative leadership styles will be accepted and rewarded, and strong and confident women will not be labelled as ‘bossy’.

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