How ‘everyday bias’ hurts women at work

A conversation with gender equity researcher Catherine Ashcraft

gender bias in the workplace

Women hold over half of all professional jobs in the US today, yet they make up just 26% of the workforce in the technology sector, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

It’s a similar story for technology roles in the C-suite: In 2018, women accounted for just 20% of CIOs in the Fortune 500.

Few people today are fighting harder to change that lopsided representation than Catherine Ashcraft, NCWIT’s research director. Ashcraft works with companies to show that if they can address gender bias from the top down, from the inside out, they’ll be much more successful over the long haul. They will also boost creativity, productivity, and morale.

In a conversation with Workflow, Ashcraft explained some of the bad habits many companies have fallen into with gender bias, and what they can do to reverse the trends.

(Check out another Q&A on workplace gender bias with ServiceNow IT strategy chief Patricia Grant.)

How do you help companies create a more inclusive atmosphere for women?

One of the first things we do is shift the focus away from, “How can we make the women better?” A lot of default solutions are about “fixing” women so they better fit the existing system. You see professional development seminars touting things like “Learn to be more assertive,” “Be more confident,” or “Practice better negotiation skills.” Those are good tactics for everyone, not just women, but those kinds of programs will never change the system.

Why is that?

Because the focus should be on fixing the system, not the people. We have a change model that lays out different problematic systems and where implicit or societal biases creep in. One category is everyday bias—micro-aggressions or micro-inequities. These are subtle slights that wouldn’t be a big deal if they only happened once or twice, but if they happen all the time, it’s exhausting.

Gender inequality won’t really change until the business side steps up, stops seeing it as HR’s purview.

What’s an example of everyday bias?

The most common is being interrupted more often in meetings. Or being misrecognized. Someone says, “We need to wait until the lead engineer gets here.” She’s already there, but nobody recognizes it. So she has to say, “Oh, that’s me.” These comments aren’t intentional, and they’re small. But they create an unwelcoming culture, and chip away at that feeling of belonging.

There’s certainly an accumulation effect there, too.

There is, and it wears you down. We do a lot of work with companies on interrupting, because it’s something that people can start fixing right away. It’s motivating in that regard, because you don’t have to wait for a big company program to roll out. You can start paying attention to who’s being interrupted in meetings tomorrow and redirect the conversation.

What other ways do biases creep in?

We see biases in recruitment and job descriptions. An extreme example is advertising for “ninja coders” or “unparalleled coding skills.” We know from research that women can be turned off by that language—even if they love ninjas!—and that they’re less likely to apply for jobs if they don’t feel they’re fully qualified for one, so that “unparalleled” wording can be off-putting.

We also work a lot with companies on biases built into task assignment—how managers often don’t think about how they assign tasks or roles on their team. A particular role may always go to the person who clamors loudest for the job, or the person you always think of to do the job.

We have schemas in our head for who can do certain kinds of tasks. We often think of them as people we’ve seen be successful in those roles before, or people like us. And since the majority of tech employees right now are men, managers tend to think of men first for these roles. It’s about getting people to think more intentionally.

How do you get managers to change the pattern?

The key is asking one question: “Why am I doing it this way?” And the answer has to be better than, “Because everyone’s done it this way.”

The problem is that none of these ingrained systems change without top-down support— senior leaders in technology taking ownership is huge. That hasn’t been happening, and it’s one of the key reasons we haven’t seen much change in the last 15 or 20 years.

Most often, these efforts are delegated to HR, and tech leadership says, “They’ll handle it.” Gender inequality won’t really change until the business side steps up and stops seeing it as HR’s purview. We tell executives all the time, “You need to treat this like you do any other business issue. Take ownership, and make sure it happens in your org.” Still, that’s shockingly rare.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, are we any closer to gender equality in the workplace?

There are pockets where it’s getting better. When NCWIT started in 2004, people weren’t talking about lack of representation or implicit bias. So the conversation has picked up and there is more momentum. But it’s unclear if that will turn into real action. When things like “implicit bias” or other terms become buzzwords, they can lose their potency.

You mean, if companies act like they’re taking action when they’re not?

It can definitely have that effect. And that leads to another flaw: In addition to not enlisting senior tech leaders, companies also rush to embrace check-the-box, trendy solutions—“We’re going to put everybody through unconscious-bias training in the next quarter.” And then they forget about it.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making people aware of implicit bias and other problems, but it’s almost always disconnected from any follow-up to address what’s wrong.

What does meaningful follow-up look like?

What can truly make a difference is to operationalize your training. Hold sessions where you have conversations about these issues—then have follow-up sessions. You have to be connected to a larger, strategic plan, focus on a multi-pronged approach, and not just throw unconscious bias training at the problem.

This all goes back to leadership. Somebody on the business side has to own making changes. Or they’ll just fall through the cracks.