Real Leaders

How to Stand up For Yourself in a Gender Bias World

Group of serious businesspeople interacting at meeting

Right now, I am very busy teaching companies how to create gender synergy.  This requires a change of culture as well as a change of behavior of both men and women who want to work together more effectively.

The process of combining the strengths of blue brains and pink brains into a purple brain culture is actually fairly simple. But the forces of resistance are difficult to defeat because they are largely invisible.

We live in a world permeated with bias.

In virtually all human systems there is an advantaged group and everyone else who are to some degree disadvantaged. The advantaged group establishes the norms, expectations, and rules that maximize opportunities for themselves and frequently minimize opportunities for all others. Leaders of the advantaged group typically claim they have no bias and that “others,” who find it difficult to succeed under their rules, are lazy, stupid, unmotivated, or inferior. If this continues many members of the disadvantaged group lose their motivation to excel and thus confirm the stereotype tattooed on them by the people making the rules. This justifies continued bias from the advantage group toward the disadvantaged others.

Bias is not only unfair, it is a form of identity theft.

It literally robs people of their core motivations to grow in their capabilities and contributions because the rules for success are rigged against them.

I see this bias clearly and consistently in large organizations that have success rules for senior leadership that have favored men and alpha male behavior. It is so rampant in technology and science based companies that Megan Kelly just conducted a television show interviewing “Women of Silicon Valley” in which a group a very bright, accomplished and capable women gave their accounts of the choking impact of workplace gender bias.

The good news is I’m talking to more and more male leaders who sincerely want to extinguish bias and establish cultures that actually thrive on personal and cognitive diversity.  But it is not easy.  There is a backlash.  We have clear evidence that establishing quotas for women in leadership makes men angry and women feel patronized. We also know that bias training does not actually diminish bias. Bias is only diminished when members of the advantaged group have many positive experiences with members of the disadvantaged group.

So, the only way for males to genuinely support promoting more women in leadership is to have more women leaders.

The problem with the simple notion is that if the leadership culture maintains the norms and rules that reward Blue brain behaviors of competitiveness, decisiveness and muscular confidence AND demand that women adopt these same characteristics to succeed, we will lose the benefits of cognitive diversity. And the vicious cycle will continue.

It’s time to consider this…

Dr. Dan McAdams theory of personality proposes that our core personality is strongly driven by our genetics, which stimulate and regulate our neuro transmitters and hormones that shape our moods, perceptions, motivations, and social interactions. Our core personality traits tend to be binary. For example, we tend to either be pro-social (care for others) or pro-self (self-interested).  We tend to either enjoy and embrace new experiences or we tend to value the status quo. These genetic tendencies are very strong but can be overwhelmed by what McAdams calls our adaptive personality.

If we find ourselves in a social system that does not value our core personality we adapt or rebel. For example, a teenager whose core personality embraces novelty and minimizes risk, with highly conventional parents who are sensitive to threats and deeply value the status quo, will often adapt by either becoming secretive and sneaky or an in-your-face rebel.

Personality adaptations can be very positive. A thrill seeking teenager can become a courageous scientist who is delighted to shake up the status quo to advance science. A threat sensitive, structured thinker can become a valuable quality control expert at a nuclear power plant.

However, if we find ourselves in a highly biased social system we may feel we have to mal-adapt to survive.  So, if you really need your job and your boss is a sexist tyrant you may find yourself constantly finding ways to work around the daily minefield to keep your paycheck. If you keep this up for long the unfairness of the situation will cause chronic stress and may even lead to depression.

“Refuse to be discouraged when you find yourself in a disadvantaged position.”

In a less extreme situation in which you observe that men or people with other advantaged class credentials, like an Ivy League degree, are being more quickly promoted without merit you can lose your ambition. Of course losing your ambition is a self-fulfilling prophecy that confirms the bias of the very people who are treating you unfairly.

It is a sign of emotional health to want to feel valued and fulfilled.  Yet all of us find ourselves in situations where we feel neither.  If that environment is dominant in our lives we need active countermeasures to avoid acting in the way it justifies the prejudices of the cultural rule makers.

Here are three ways of being an advocate for your best potential self.

  1. Voice Your Vision.  It is critical that you have an agenda for your life and your career.  Otherwise you will spend your life reacting to other people’s agenda.  You will feel undervalued and exhausted. Instead, imagine yourself at the end of your life. What has been your life story?  What life choices did you make that you’re the most proud of.  What work did you do that was fulfilling? Just begin by making a list of words and phrases that describe the best career and life that you can imagine.  You’ll need to update this because as you live you will learn.  The most important thing is to have an agenda that will guide your choices, your view of opportunities, and most important what to say NO to.
  2. Optimize Your Strengths.  Pay attention to what you do well that you enjoy.  You can do this by keeping a Flourish Journal in which you write down at the end of each day something that you did well you enjoyed.  Then you ask yourself, “What was the secret to your success?”  This is a way of discovering your motivated talents.
  3. Stand up for Yourself.  We live in a biased world that is unlikely to change anytime soon.  Refuse to be discouraged when you find yourself in a disadvantaged position.  Instead seek to stand out…. not fit in. Ask for what you want when you want it. Don’t demand it. Just rather make it a clear request.  Stay calm, consistent and relentless. That’s what drives change.

One last thought… There is a current fad in large companies to establish women’s resource organizations, like the “Women of Wondertech.” Over time, it is common for these organizations to devolve into internal networking groups with speakers.  These groups tend to reinforce the view that women just like getting together to talk about their problems. The real opportunity for women’s resource groups is to become a force for change. These groups should have an agenda that advocates for policies such as family leave, childcare allowances, work from home, flex time, career advancement, sponsorship, and a host of other bias leveling practices that should be actively advocated for with the CEO. Use your women’s resource groups to ask for what you need and what you want.

The Bottom Line

Bias will only be overcome when disadvantaged people quit being silent or long-suffering victims. The next generation has already decided that change is necessary. The future will not wait. Now is the time for change.