Woman Walking

Cut the Bias

Gender bias is real. It is not a knowledge problem or an effort problem. It is a habit problem. And we can help. 

“Women aren’t allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.”

—  Will Cloney, Boston Athletic Association Director, in a letter to Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, 1966

Not everyone wants to run 26.2 miles in one go. Not everyone can. But these days no one could argue that you must be a man to complete a marathon. Roughly 45% of the Americans who run marathons are women.

Prior to the 1960s, running was considered a man’s sport, too taxing for delicate feminine physiology. In hindsight, this seems both ridiculous and easy to disprove, but women weren’t even allowed to try. Lady races topped out at about one mile. One! The pioneers of women’s long-distance running had to crash the course in baggy warm-ups. In 1966, Bobbi Gibb snuck out of the shrubbery into the starting pack of the Boston Marathon and finished ahead of most of the men. The following year Kathrine Switzer received an official race number by entering as K.V. Switzer.

Jock Semple attempting to pull Kathrine Switzer out of the Boston Marathon

All Kathrine Switzer wanted to do was run. Tom Miller (#390) put his own athletic career at risk to block Jock Semple. Kathrine and Jock later became friends.

The iconic photos of Switzer evading the clutches of race official Jock Semple captured the struggle for equal opportunity on the course and beyond. The rules finally changed in 1972. This was the same year Title IX became law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in federally-funded education.

Now, as ultrarunning becomes more popular, we’re learning that at longer distances women don’t just finish strong, they can win.

Gender Bias is Pervasive, and It’s Stupid

“Women should have free access to every field of labor which they care to enter, and when their work is as valuable as that of a man it should be paid as highly.”

— Teddy Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt, 1913

Lately, we’ve all been talking about workplace gender bias and harassment, still, in 2017, in America. It’s infuriating. We’re still saying “the first step to stopping discrimination is recognizing it.” It seems like a lot of people recognize it, and yet here we are, over a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt stated the obvious. Particularly depressing stories are coming out of technology companies, the ones who are supposed to be leading the way and creating the world of the future.

Gender-based discrimination is illegal, unethical, and harmful. And yet it continues, because it’s familiar and comfortable, even for many people who suffer from it. Recognizing bias is not enough. We need to condemn it, and eliminate it. 

The Problem With Solutions

We have recognized the problem of gender bias for decades and it seems we are no closer to ending it. In the technology business, the situation is arguably worse than 20 years ago. 

Graph showing that enrollment in Computer science declined for women

Prior to the mid ’80s, home computers weren’t a thing. No one entered college with computer experience. Then, personal computers were marketed as toys for boys and kaboom. Not sure what happened again in 2003. Anyway, it’s a garbage situation.

The commitment to inclusiveness must start at the top, but often fizzles in the follow-through. Good company policy is necessary, yet policy ultimately exists to protect the company. Legal remedies are essential, but they should be a last resort. Litigation doesn’t scale, and doesn’t touch the mass of minor slights and bad assumptions that add up to major barriers.

Unconscious bias training is very popular right now. You can explore Google’s entire course. Unconscious bias training feels like doing something. It’s pleasant and interesting and studies show it might totally backfire

And the core message of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In is that if women just aspire hard and work harder, they can change the existing structure from within. This requires accepting the existing structure of work, which is built on bias. And it’s too easy to confuse effort for efficacy. I’ve talked to many diligent professionals who thought they only had to do a little bit more to be heard, prepare more thoroughly, or discover the right communication trick to thread that invisible line between harpy and simp. Good news, my abrasive friends, you’re off the hook. Trying harder won’t earn the respect of someone who doesn’t see you as an equal. Go ahead and reject the framing entirely.

Trying harder won’t earn the respect of someone who doesn’t see you as an equal.

Gender bias is not merely an issue of awareness or effort. We keep treating it like a combination of these because these are problems with comfortable solutions. HR departments are good at handouts and mandatory training. And many women deal with discrimination by putting in more effort to be heard. It can be hard to tell sometimes whether the problem lies more with an institution or an individual. There is just a lingering sense of futility. 

Facts Don’t Help

A 63% majority of women say obstacles continue to make it harder for women than men today, compared with 34% who say they are largely gone. Among men, 41% think women still face obstacles that make it harder to get ahead, while 56% say those challenges have mostly been eliminated.

— Pew Research Center, 2016 study

Gender bias even colors the perception of gender bias. A majority of men think it’s solved. A majority of women disagree. 

Often individuals and organizations treat cultural issues like knowledge problems, as though people just need different facts in order to support better behavior. Knowing that implicit gender bias exists is the first step, but it isn’t enough. We have all the facts. Not everyone chooses to believe in the existence of bias, because it is not in everyone’s interest to believe. This is something we need to change.

An organization is a system. It operates according to rules and standards as interpreted by humans through their behavior. In the absence of a rigorous, practical commitment to equality and inclusiveness, the biases of influential individuals dictate norms.

For example, many women report being asked to take notes or get coffee in a meeting while their male colleagues are not. This occurs because of a cultural association of women with administrative and housekeeping tasks. If this happens frequently in a male-dominated organization, merely pointing it out won’t fix it. Saying “Stop asking women to take notes” won’t help. It is necessary to define how to decide who takes notes and socialize this throughout the organization. This might sound trivial, but the full weight of bias is often the sum of many minor interactions.

Bias is a Bad Habit

It is useful to think of gender bias as a habit problem. Humans are irrational — lazy, forgetful creatures of habit. Beliefs and behaviors are habits. And a culture is the sum of accepted beliefs and behaviors. Bias is a very comfortable shortcut that is endemic because it is wrapped up in social identity. People will fight to defend egregious biases in the face of evidence. We’re seeing that right now in some of the public reactions to women telling their stories of discrimination and harassment—putting the jerk in knee-jerk.

Every interaction designer and personal trainer knows how hard it is to change habits. Deciding to make positive change is fun. Committing to new, unfamiliar practices over the long haul feels excruciating. We need to face the discomfort and be real about the type of work required. There is no quick fix.

A habit consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. The biased behavior is the routine we need to disrupt. Thoughtless acts or demeaning comments feel good and offer a payoff or they would not persist. We can’t stop at pointing out a bad pattern. We have to identify and correct everything that enables it.

The Solution is Shared Goals And New Habits

Habits take place within a context. To break them we have to look at the surrounding environment and find ways to make inclusive behavior easier than the alternative.

It is essential to connect new ways of working together (because unbiased inclusiveness is a radical departure) to high-priority business goals and incentives. Too many companies explicitly express a desire for collaborative teams while continuing to promote based on competition between individual contributors. This is an environment that will reward idea stealing.

Gender bias has persisted for so long because many companies have been very successful in spite of it. This success creates a resistance to change. The leadership might agree that a more equitable and inclusive environment would be neat in some abstract way, but in the absence of an imminent threat or a crisis, it’s nearly impossible to build momentum for deep transformation.

Those who are benefitting from the status quo have no incentive to shake things up. The risk of change seems more tangible than the rewards. As long as profits and press are good, culture-tinkering can remain a sideshow relegated to lunchtime diversity panels.

Those who are benefitting from the status quo have no incentive to shake things up.

The truth is that present success can hide immense risk and opportunity cost. Fostering discrimination is illegal and unethical, and will ultimately lead the organizations that ignore the issue to be left behind. While the values need to be established at the top, change requires breaking patterns at every level. The tools need to be placed in the hands of those who stand to benefit.

Do Less and Achieve More

Based on 16 years of experience helping client organizations improve collaboration to better meet their goals, we’ve developed a workshop to address gender-biased practices from the inside out. 

This workshop equips participants to identify and overcome barriers to their personal professional goals while meeting organizational business goals. Dealing with sexist stereotyping, hostility, or feeling invisible when you are just trying to do your job is already exhausting and demoralizing. We help those who are already doing too much achieve more with less work. A framework for problem-solving and prioritization helps focus effort on the activities and relationships that are most critical. We’ve designed activities that connect goals and incentives to create new habits. This approach contributes to lasting progress over time.

Read more about the workshop here »

Changing deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviors is hard, but it is possible — for both individuals and societies. Otherwise you’d be reading this on your smoke break.

Hero image credit: Geoff Livingston