How to Reduce Gender Bias When Employees Dissent

Photo courtesy Benjamin Child via Unsplash

Strong-willed employees often face social backlash when voicing disagreeable opinions, but the issue is worse for women. Here’s how leaders can alleviate the problem.

By David Maxfield

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Picture yourself in a meeting with other managers. You’ve been charged with making decisions that will alter the course of a large division within your company. After hours of discussion, you think the group has agreed upon the changes that must be made, but there is one holdout — the newest member of the group. And this manager is not shy about expressing disagreement.

“I’m not on board with the direction this group is taking us — and before someone interrupts me, let me finish. You can’t get me to change my mind and I, along with my team, will not be a part of this plan of action. That’s final!”

So, what do you think of your new colleague?

Typically, there is social backlash against people who voice this kind of strong disagreement. But that social backlash is more severe if the person displaying this kind of aggressive behavior is a woman. Oftentimes women who disagree in forceful, assertive ways are judged more harshly than men who do the same. This is gender bias at work.

Unfortunately, gender bias is a reality in today’s workplace. According to a study by training and consulting firm VitalSmarts, women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived worth by more than $15,000 annually when they are equally as assertive or forceful as their male colleagues. Men who are assertive or forceful are also punished, but to a much lesser degree.

What can leaders do to counterbalance this perception, especially for women?

State Desired Intent

Social backlash occurs when observers use emotion to draw negative conclusions about the speaker’s intent. This emotional response is reduced when the speaker takes a few moments to explain his or her positive intent before diving into the content. If not managed well, emotional inequality and social backlash can adversely affect an individual’s career and can reduce organizational effectiveness.

We know when an individual states an opinion or makes a bold statement that safety may break down if his or her intent is negatively interpreted. And when this occurs, the speaker loses influence. Here are a few recommended steps people can take to ensure their intent is perceived positively:

  • Demonstrate you are in control of your emotions. Start the conversation with a statement like: “I’m going to express my opinion directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.” This is called the Behavior Frame, and it helps describe what you are about to say.
  • Demonstrate your commitment to a shared value by starting the conversation off with, “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” This is called the Value Frame, and it helps speakers describe their motivation in value-laden terms.
  • Share your good intent. Quickly and clearly explain your positive intent before you share your opinion. It may also be helpful to state what you do not intend as well.
  • Learn additional skills to create safety. High-stakes disagreements require special skills, and there are plenty of options available. Make sure you build in practice time so you will learn how to use the skills you acquire under pressure.

Make it Safe for Employees to Speak Up

Leaders have a responsibility to make it safe for employees to speak boldly for what they believe. They also need to be aware that women face more gender bias than men when they do speak up. That means it is a leader’s job to not only cultivate the kind of culture where people can engage in candid dialogue, but one where it is equally safe for both men and women to do so.

With that in mind, here are five steps leaders can take to create that kind of culture that reduces this kind of gender bias:

  1. Open the discussion. Shine a spotlight on the problems of emotion. Discuss the implications gender bias has on the day-to-day operations on the workplace. Identify times, places and circumstances when these problems are likely and cue people into those moments to guard against them.
  2. Lead the way. Leaders should take concrete actions that show commitment to counteract the implicit bias women face in the workplace. They need to send a message that employees must be aware that an implicit bias against women likely exists and it has no place in their organization.
  3. Change the norm. Most people focus on the content of what people say and avoid discussing any strong emotions they show. This leaves bystanders to guess at what the speaker means and assume the worst: he or she is out of control. A healthier norm is to encourage people to ask about strong emotions whenever they see them. When a person explains his or her forcefulness, it prevents observers from assuming the worst.
  4. Create times and places for speaking up. Add in an agenda item that asks people to speak forcefully about the issue being discussed. This approach provides a clear external reason for speakers’ passion and would thus reduce observers’ tendency to assume they’d lost their tempers.
  5. Invest in skill building. Training can be a powerful way to help others learn the skills they need in order to create conversational safety. This allows individuals and teams to discuss tough issues that affect organizational results across the board — from quality to safety to employee engagement and morale.

David Maxfield is co-author of three New York Times bestsellers, “Crucial Accountability,” “Influencer” and “Change Anything.” He is also vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development firm.

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