Unconscious Bias and Balance for Women

Why we still think “busy” is a good excuse.


B.U.S.Y. Four letters that are too often said, and have a way of ruining fun evening plans or hope of a good night’s sleep.

I originally hail from the Advertising world, meaning I know that word well. The ad world is notorious for long work days in a constant drive for billable client hours. Agency staff is often young — because who else wants to go to publisher dinners on a weeknight? — and many of these recent grads didn’t learn the crucial skill of saying “No!”. When I left the agency world, though, I realized this problem was everywhere. Especially for women. Now…why is that?

When I started out my professional career, I fell victim to this common trap. I was a young grad, eager to prove that I had what it took to join the business world and my parents’ collegiate investment hadn’t been in vain. I wanted to show that I was just as good as my male counterparts, especially in such a male dominated industry. I could schmooze through the long dinners and negotiate rates for my clients just as well. Right?

Maybe not.

I worked myself to the point of burnout because I was so convinced I had something to prove. Why did I feel that way, and where did it come from? There’s something psychological about the workplace that creates this feeling, and I think it could be unconscious bias.

Unconscious Bias (also known as Implicit Bias) is defined by UCSF as, “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside of their own conscious awareness”. What this means is that there are certain biases that, while not intentional, can harmfully impact how you think about groups around you based on the human tendency towards categorization. One example of this may be an unconscious bias of both men and women to see their female boss who steps in with a firm recommendation as “too brash”. Or perhaps, for a woman up for a promotion to be judged more harshly for the role than her male counterpart. These biases are not always intentional or realized, but it’s hard to deny their existence.

So what does this mean for women in the work world?

What I’ve found in my business of career development and coaching for high-achieving women is that the impact is BIG.

Many women I’ve worked with struggle with feeling like they need to be everything to everyone. They need to be the perfect employee who never messes up, the perfect mom who cuts the best orange slices for soccer practice, and the perfect supportive friend to everyone she meets. While this is certainly not the case for all women, it’s important to investigate where this idea may come from.

Circling back to the idea of Unconscious Bias, many women in the work world realize that they may be unintentionally judged more harshly than their male counterparts. With this chip on their shoulders, they go out into the world world feeling like they need to demonstrate their worth. They will often take on that extra project, say yes when they should say no, and stay in the office later than they need to because they think it looks better come promotion time.

While we can’t immediately fix the systemic issues that are behind this sentiment, we can empower women to consciously choose what they will allow for themselves. They can’t control those around them or what will happen as a result of their decisions, but women can start to say no.

Saying no is like pulling a band-aid, and when women start to train themselves with these habits it only get’s easier. When we’re not constantly filling in the blanks with what we think our manager may say when we decline a big project, we give them to room to say, “no problem, that seems fair”.

As employees, we women are the only ones who can create the work environment we want. While there are so many factors going into this complicated ecosystem and I certainly can’t claim to be an expert, I do know what has worked for me. From the day I learned to say yes more deliberately instead of to everything, my life has been undeniably and permanently altered. I show up happier and healthier, with less self-pressure weighing on me.

So with all that in mind, consider what work environment you are creating today. Is it what you want for yourself, or can you start to sharpen some tools to live with a bit more balance?

If you’re struggling to hone those skills reach out to me at Chris@BeEmpoweredAchievers.com and let’s talk. I work with women regularly to develop these tools, so I know it’s possible.

Like what you read? Give Chris Dalton a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.