Gender Bias is Still Real, And You Can Help

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

One year ago this month, I finished a fascinating experiment around gender in chat. When I started, I was very excited to find out if my assumptions were correct. I thought it would be fun and enlightening and that I might even be surprised.

In the end I was disappointed. Not only were my assumptions correct, they were more correct than I hoped. Feel free to read all my slides and takeaways in the original blog post.

This last couple of years, and especially this last month, I keep thinking about that study. I keep thinking about a lot of things I don’t want to think about, because I’m a woman. The news is like living in a custom horror movie where all your nightmares become public fodder — inescapable, realized, and rationalized by those in power.

If you are managing women on a team right now, you may be noticing things are a little off. Hopefully if you are managing a team of women, you’re asking yourself “How can I support these incredible people?” Thank you for asking that question!

Here at Olark, we have some dedicated People Ops humans, founders, and coaches who do so much everyday to help Olarkers succeed and feel empowered to do their best work. We understand that life is a part of work, because we bring our whole selves to work. I asked my team for ideas of things you can do right now and going forward to support your team. I also know there are some incredible people reading this right now, so I’m asking you, “What are you doing for your team to help them feel empowered and supported? What has someone done for you that has helped you feel the same?”

More than Words

Instead of asking “what can I do” take note of what your teammates say or express interest in. Kimberly, our HR and Culture Enthusiast, suggests saying things like “You mentioned you wanted to grow in X, Y and Z areas, I came across this class, conference, etc you might be interested in. Look it over and let me know what you think. I’m happy to support you if you think this is something you’re interested in.”

It’s support, but also giving them autonomy to carve their own paths. Making solid suggestions avoids the trap of asking “how can I help you” which puts individuals in an uncomfortable spot.

She also recommends taking a hard look at what you’re assigning to the women on your team. This HBR podcast, Let’s Do Less Dead End Work summed up well how it is a biased for both male and female managers to give busy work to women.

The Power to Block

If your team deals with customers, they may face some nasty things. The first thing I suggest is signing your communications with a female name for at least a week. There is nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to build empathy. Then, give your team explicit permission to set boundaries.

Kate, our Story Sherpa says, “empower/encourage them to block/ignore/report anyone who is harassing them, even if it’s a customer. Women are socialized to be people-pleasers and to try to make everyone happy…we need to be reminded that we shouldn’t stand for abuse.” If you don’t have a clear policy around abusive customers, come up with something as quickly as possible as a short term solution, then get with your legal team to get it into your Terms of Service. And be firm. If you’re a male in a position of power, use that to get the tightest policy possible. If you need some inspiration, Olark, Basecamp and GitHub all have good examples of simple, direct, anti-abuse and harassment policies.

Stand Up to Others

This may sound a little trite, but as a manager, you need to back your employees. Women rarely report harassment and abuse. Even worse, we often don’t even see where we are experiencing sexism in the workplace because we are simply desensitized. Ask yourself constantly, in every meeting, review and interaction “would a male employee get this reaction right now?” If Steve or Matt or John would be treated differently, you’re seeing sexism at work. Then say something. Taking action swiftly to point out imbalances in the workplace is the quickest way to correct them. It may not change right away, but pointing things out will help others see it, and will give your female employees a chance to advocate for themselves as well.

Check In With HR

There are many policies that affect your employees that may need review. Do you have a dress code? Is it gender specific? If so, rewrite it so that a well-dressed dog could conform.

Are you providing necessary adjustments for nursing or pregnant moms? If so, are you following the letter of the law? Or are you truly trying to support them from a place of wanting them to succeed at work and in life?

Does HR offer any trainings that you’ve missed or you think would be helpful? Make time for those, and if possible, advocate for additional trainings to cover any gaps. Once you’ve completed trainings and workshops, support each other in implementing what you’ve learned instead of letting workbooks gather dust on cubicle shelves.

Don’t be a Hero

Frequently, women do emotional labor for men who want accolades for “being a great guy!” Don’t be that guy. If you want rewards for treating women as equal human beings, you’re asking for a reward for the most basic human decency. The idea here to give women space to grow and reach their goals, while you also grow and reach yours. Getting frustrated for lack of recognition takes a lot of energy that could be expended elsewhere, like planning a really great lunch and learn.

Give space

There are many, many women grieving and reliving old horrors right now. Please be gentle and give space. Most do not want to talk about it, but it’s important that you allow them to talk to someone if needed. Check again with HR to see if there is a way to cover some mental health care, or promote other self care initiatives. Building some self-care kits is a good and inexpensive start as well. Compassion, transparency and flexibility will all go a long way to helping employees feel supported and give more to your team overall.

Sarah Betts is the Feels Herder at Olark.com. She likes to chat (a lot), write, find forgotten chocolate stashes, and think about how businesses can be more human.