Women in the Workplace and the Unconscious Self Bias

Featured Columnist: Carol Sankar

I was thrown into leadership in my late 20’s in the highly aggressive legal field and completely naive to the issues that affect women in the workplace. I quickly learned about the competitive value of women fighting to gain access to high level opportunities. There were moments when I lost my confidence as I continued to keep pushing through the impenetrable glass, without any results for almost two years.

One setback after another, I began to justify my professional losses as a lack of accredited experience, while I continued to compare my qualifications to the women who finally shattered the ceiling at the c-level. In a moment of angst, the imposter syndrome became a part of my professional narrative. The impostor syndrome led to additional public setbacks, which caused me reevaluate the cause shattering the glass ceiling.

Public setbacks for women in the workplace often lead to an Unconscious Self Bias.This is an issue that has not correctly been labeled, especially for women in leadership. We are implicitly hard on ourselves for our professional losses, and fail to use our confidence to continue to highlight our value. Our inner critic begins to recalculate our journey and we find flaws with perfection in an effort to justify abandoning our professional ambitions.

Leadership is difficult, especially for women who continue to struggle to increase their presence in top level professions. The limited expectation and percentage of active women leaders continue to affirm the self bias narrative that it must be impossible to get access to the top. Subliminally, highly qualified women limit their high level ambitions in order to avoid the abasement of rejection.

Quite simply, self bias is a learned behavior of assessing the public setbacks and failure of other women leaders in the workplace and finding comparable qualities within oneself, which will justify either the failure to try or the cause of the loss. Once you identify the professional deficiency, the bias will create hypothetical evidence to support the fears that women in the workplace face when it come to professional ascension. To confirm the hypothesis, women will guard the feeling of “if it were me, I would …” with a level of increased pessimism without fully understanding or knowing the facts which contributed to the defeat.

Self bias is an unfair self assessment, which decreases confidence and hinders workplace performance. However, with the the recent decrease of women CEO’s to a historic low of only 4% of the Fortune 500’s largest companies, women are afraid more than ever to speak up in the workplace. With the presence of all of the “glass” ceilings, walls, elevators, and escalators; women are more fearful of falling through the cracks.

In our recent in-house survey of 100 professional women, 41% of our participants agreed that they have allowed their own self-inflicted fears to hold them back professionally. I will even admit that I have sabotaged my own journey in the workplace over a decade ago by negating my value due to the fear of rejection. It was imperative that I remained “employed” rather than disrupt the norm and negotiate for compensation or elevated opportunities. A PWC study published by Strategy& recently found that between 2004- 2013, female executives were forced out of their jobs far more often, with 38% being terminated, compared to 27% of their male counterparts. As a result, such practices will make us noticeably risk averse.


There are 4 effective methods to help women avoid self bias in the workplace

  1. Create your value proposition and add to it as needed. This is the most crucial step in the negotiation process to ensure decision makers focus on the contributions you make to the workplace, and the replacement value of your resignation.
  2. Never compare yourself to others. Your qualifications are not comparable to anyone in the workplace, unless there is implicit gender bias. Comparison will negate your confidence.
  3. Seek mentors and create advocacy circles to hold you accountable within your organization or profession. There is nothing better than discussing your issues with other women leaders who understand your journey and found ways to overcome their own negative self beliefs.
  4. Bring awareness to all implicit gender bias. The greatest lesson I have learned over the years is women tend to withhold the truth from each other due to shame. Speaking up will help bring awareness for all women seeking professional ascension.

Carol Sankar is a high level business consultant and the founder of The Confidence Factor for Women in Leadership, which is a global executive leadership firm focused on diversity and inclusion initiatives for high level women. Carol has been featured at TEDx, The Steve Harvey Show, Bounce TV, Inroads, The Society for Diversity, SHRM, Entrepreneur Magazine, Homevestors and more. For more details, visit www.carolsankar.com.

For more information on the WIN Summit, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Make sure to visit our site and register for the 2017 WIN Summit on May 17 and 18 in NYC.