Women face bias in the workplace that can hold back careers. Here’s how women can take back power, and how leaders can facilitate change.

Becca is a leader in a global pharmaceutical company. She’s smart, driven, and has a proven record of delivering results. Her boss, another female leader, had identified her as her successor, but Becca was denied the role when the time came. Her outspoken nature was labeled as “lacking in executive presence.” Leaders said she “dominates conversations” and knocked her off the list without giving her performance record, or her boss’s endorsement, any consideration.

Jasmine faces a similar situation. She’s been in her role in a financial services company for a short while but brings with her decades of experience and technical expertise. She, like Becca, is passionate and outspoken. However, Jasmine is a Black woman. She has received feedback that she is “angry” and “aggressive.”

Fresh Insights to END the Glass CeilingBoth Becca and Jasmine are experiencing gender-based bias in the perception of their leadership styles, with Jasmine bearing the added weight of bias leveraged against her racial identity. Nancy E. Parsons describes this phenomenon in her book Fresh Insights to End the Glass Ceiling. When men and women display the same behaviors, they are perceived differently. For example, a woman confidently voicing her thoughts is labeled as “too opinionated,” while a man doing the same is perceived as “selling his point of view.”

While everyone can always grow in their communication skills, women face bias in ways that men don’t. So, I helped Becca and Jasmine find strategic adjustments to help mitigate the bias. But, this is only part of the solution: Leaders, too, must take steps to stop gender bias before it happens.

Here’s what both groups can do.

1. Pause and reflect
Both Becca and Jasmine move quickly and decisively. While this may be perceived as a positive for male leaders, both women were characterized as “talking too fast” and seeming “anxious.” I coached them to pause frequently and focus on listening to fully understand others. While they’re both quick thinkers, they can often be several steps ahead of others, leaving their colleagues in the dust — and feeling unheard. Summarizing and paraphrasing what others say, framed with phrases such as “I want to be sure I understand” or “I want to clarify what I heard,” can help others feel heard. They can also ask clarifying questions — even if they know the solution to a problem before the speaker is done describing it.

2. Consider word choice
Jasmine and Becca have both been perceived as “too direct” — a quality often celebrated in a male leader, but perceived negatively in women. I encouraged them to pay attention to the impact of word choice. Framing a problem-solving conversion with “I would like to solve this problem with you; my goal is that we work together” states intentions clearly and lessens the effect of the person feeling attacked. Using the word “could” instead of “should” helps the conversation feel more collaborative.

3. Respond to microaggressions
Like many women, Becca and Jasmine experience workplace microaggressions — subtle, yet impactful put-downs, insults, or other instances of bias. I encouraged them to address microaggressions directly but calmly. Wording such as “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but this is how [specific words or actions] landed with me” can address behaviors while preserving the delicate balance of a working relationship.

4. Choose data over gut opinions
When it comes to hiring and mobility within a company, leaders sometimes depend on gut reactions — this only opens the door to acting on bias. Instead, rely on data. Becca’s promotion was denied based on her having poor “executive presence,” which may have been colored by stereotypes of how a woman should act, versus a man. Instead, leaders can be specific and objective, and deliver feedback based on those specifics. And, rely on data when possible. Centering Jasmine’s proven expertise, for example, would have prevented using stereotypes as a basis for feedback.

5. Ask for input outside your echo chamber
People tend to gravitate toward others who share their backgrounds and opinions, and those are often tied to identity. When leaders seek input only from the same people, they may reinforce existing biases. Instead, act against confirmation bias — the tendency to seek opinions that confirm something you already believe — by welcoming different opinions.

6. Establish transparent and objective policies
Transparent, data-based processes for bonuses, promotions, and hiring can help safeguard against bias. For example, the leaders in Becca’s company could have relied on such a process for choosing the successor to Becca’s boss, which would have brought her track record into the decision, rather than personal subjective opinions. Clear structures give all employees the chance to grow and be successful.

Tackling gender bias requires everyone to pitch in. By making smart changes and using clear, data-driven policies, leaders can build a fairer workplace where people like Becca and Jasmine get the recognition they deserve.


Saving FaceMy book, Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, illustrates how we can honor face to create positive first impressions, avoid causing others to lose face, and, most importantly, help others save face to build trust and lasting relationships inside and outside the workplace.

This article was originally posted on Inc.com