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Gender Bias is Bad for Business. Period.

What? Is gender bias still an issue? Is there anybody out there who wouldn’t argue that it’s basically stupid? Apparently.

Over the weekend I picked up on Is Gender Bias Undermining Your Company? on the Harvard Business Online’s HBR Editors’ Blog. Aside from the fact that it’s a good post, and an important topic, I followed some of the links, which lead to some pretty amazing — and disturbing — opinions.

One led me to Your Comments on Women and Technology, posted last week by Sylvia Ann Hewett, also on the Harvard Business Review site; which is a follow-up on her post in May titled Women and Technology: the Ugly Truth. Her truth is ugly enough …

A new study—which I co-authored—to be published next month by the Harvard Business Review (see “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology”) demonstrates that over 40% of highly qualified scientists, engineers and technologists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders are now female. In pharmaceuticals, high tech, petro-chemicals, and aerospace, young women are making impressive strides – and garnering rave performance reviews.

This rosy picture is spoiled by one calamitous fact. A little ways down the road, more than half of these women drop out—pushed and shoved by macho work environments, serious isolation, and extreme job pressures.

… but the comments, the subject of the second post, are startling:

The many comments responding to my piece of May 16th read like postcards from the 1970s – from the early bitter edge of the gender wars. I was beginning to absorb this material, figuring out how to respond when I was hit by another deluge—200 comments that came in over a 24 period in reaction to a Q&A in Computerworld.

Both waves of reaction provide deep confirmation of my main finding—that the problems faced by female scientists, engineers, and technologists are enormously serious. These blogs and posts show that women around the country see SET workplace cultures as hostile, predatory and demeaning. They can hardly contain their disillusionment and despair. Take Jessica, Diane, and Anonymous:

“I work with ten forty-something men who work 12 hours a day, read tech magazines for fun, and bond at Hooters….If I counted the number of times I have been sexually harassed, you’d gasp.”
– Jessica

“I am the only woman in a technical position in my company. Many of [our clients] think I’m in the meetings to take notes for the men. Some even apologize for boring me with technical discussions, assuming I have no idea what they’re talking about. Imagine if men had to put up with this on top of the stress and pressures of an IT career!
– Diane

As a female in IT for over 10 years and managed to work my way to the executive level, I‘ve experienced sexual harassment on a quarterly basis. At all levels of the corporate ladder I was propositioned. Me, a married, never “fooled around” on my husband, Brooks Brother suit executive had to fight off male employees at every turn. A male superior even went so far as to place a bet with a male subordinate who would sleep with me first.
– Anonymous

Wow. I’m sorry, I would have thought this stuff was, as she suggests, from the distant past (I know, I’m naive on this respect, perhaps wildly optimistic), but, damn!

So, turning back to the original question is gender bias undermining your company? Here are some suggestions, from Is Gender Bias Undermining Your Company? on the Harvard Business Online’s HBR Editors’ Blog.

If you’re a male manager, here are a few small, but important, ways to acknowledge your female colleagues’ contributions to your organization:

Notice how you interact. When you’re in a small group, do you tend to exchange more eye contact with the men in it? Do you speak more often to men than to women? If you do notice a bias toward men, try shifting your attention slightly. Shake the woman’s hand, and exchange eye contact with her even if she’s not talking. If she’s being quiet, ask for her thoughts. (Don’t overdo all this, though, as you could raise the discomfort level.)

Actively listen. It’s easy to ‘hear past’ someone who is talking. (Our minds work about five times the speed of our mouths. In our rush to finish the speaker’s thought and put our own two cents in, we shut the other person down.) If you have a bias, it’s even easier to want to interrupt. Slow down and listen. If your response demonstrates that you’ve heard what she’s said, she’ll feel more enabled to contribute more fully to your organization.

Do you notice unspoken gender biases in your company? What are you doing, on a personal level, to help address them?


  • Gary Christiansen says:

    I'm sure no one is going to like my comments but heres the deal: I treat women the same way I treat men (in the workplace). Unfortunately at my software company it tends to be that most of the women I interact with aren't up to par with the ability that the equivalent male has in said position. Typically I hire a woman when HR is breathing down my neck to even out the gender numbers. I don't any of the women here know that they were hired because of HR pressure. Just my two cents. Thanks, love the blog!!

  • Charles Robinson says:

    There was a follow-up editorial piece on Computerworld:

    I have been counseled by numerous HR professionals to treat women very differently than I do men. I have been told not to make eye contact at meetings, not to ask women direct questions unless they specifically involve her job duties, and not to touch them on the shoulder to get their attention when they're wearing headphones at their desks.

    I have broken all those rules, and been accused of harassment once (for touching a woman on the shoulder to get her attention when her headphones were blaring) and for creating an uncomfortable work environment by asking "Rhonda, what do you think about this disaster recovery plan?" in a meeting.

    So yeah, I see the bias, and I understand why it exists. I'm a gay man and I know all too well that stereotypes exist for a reason, even if they don't apply to me personally. It's frustrating but all I can do is keep trying to shatter the myths. Society isn't going to change just because it's the civil thing to do.

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