The subtleties of gender bias

In the eighties, I worked on a project that required me to travel with a team to a site where we had to sign in and wear badges. We went there about once every month for over a year. It drove me crazy because the security guards (both male and female) would hand me my badge and say, “Here you go, Carol,” and then hand the male team member his badge with, “Here you go, Mr. James.”

Today, thirty years later, the same thing happened. A receptionist called me “Carol,” and my husband, “Mr. Anderson.” Dang. Wouldn’t you think we would have evolved, given all of the focus on diversity and inclusion?

In the nineties, I headed a diversity initiative for a bank. One of the elephants hanging around the room in those days was the chatter among female executives who were learning to play golf because they were tired of having business discussion occur on the golf course when they weren’t there.

Our heightened awareness

Today, gender bias has been outed in a very public way, and pundits are talking about very egregious impacts on women from power-hungry men in charge. A recent article hypothesized that there would probably be no more closed-door meetings between a female and a male in the working world. Yep.

That’s sad, but that’s life. The pendulum swings to the far side before it lands in the middle. And frankly, some men in positions of power are seriously in need of an attitude adjustment. Or perhaps it is as severe as a need for intervention to help us all recognize that we are playing decades-old tapes in our heads.

I didn’t think it impacted me very much

Oh yes, I had my challenges being a female in the U. S. Marine Corps in the 1970s. But in contrast to some of the stories coming out lately, my experience both in the military and after, was mild. I was privileged to have a husband who honored women in the workplace, and a 20-year male boss who paved a wonderful career for me built on mutual trust and respect.

But I’m starting to get a nagging feeling that these egregious acts are the tip of a very, very big iceberg. I was bothered in the 1980s when I was addressed differently, but it feels more insidious today.

In the 1980s, it was what it was. There was no point in bringing it up; it wouldn’t change.

Ah, but now. Now it feels different. Now I see below the surface the assumptions and cultural norms that have perpetuated, even as we “talk the talk” on diversity and inclusion. I see my own preconceptions and realize that they are based on the culture that was crafted for me based on my generation, my gender, and my family.

I am not sure where to go with this

I’m not Rosa Parks, nor am I Gretchen Carlson. I don’t have their courage, and I’m not all that excited about rocking the boat.

But I continue to see the subtleties. Recently I sat with two men after a business meeting. Without all the hoopla today, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but I was unusually aware of the camaraderie between the two men.  In no way were they disrespectful to me, but I was not part of the camaraderie. They were talking “guy topics.” It wasn’t work time – we were in a restaurant – so that should be okay, right?

That experience isn’t new; it’s happened before. Today, however, it just feels different. Today, I notice it.

If I was uncomfortable, do I say something? We probably all are more cautious in a business scenario, because the stakes are higher.

On the flip side, why shouldn’t anyone feel free to commiserate with folks in whom they have something in common, gender aside?

Perhaps it is a matter of situational awareness, not related to gender or other visible differences. Personal interactions are just that: personal. Business interactions, however, are business and there should be protocols for inclusion.

Maybe there are a few subtle actions we can take to foster inclusion. How about these to start?

When in a business situation, be aware of who you are with

While every business situation has some “chat time” where non-business subjects are discussed, a long, friendly personal conversation can be alienating to those who are not included. Be mindful of those around you. If you sense others are sitting awkwardly as you commiserate, bring them into the conversation or take it elsewhere.

Those non-business chats help build business relationships and for that reason are terrific. Everyone needs to have an opportunity to have informal time with their colleagues, but some may need to be drawn in.

Recognize the signs of discomfort or awkwardness

Be the first to step out and involve others. Bringing others into the discussion will build your business relationships with a diverse set of colleagues. This will serve you well as the topics shift back to business.

Make eye contact

Folks who are uncomfortable will tend to look away. Bring them back by making eye contact and speaking directly to them. Ask them questions that let them know they are wanted to join in the conversation.

Watch the jokes

I say this with sincere trepidation. It probably seems like a “duh” statement and sound like I’m saying not to have fun. But it deserves to be repeated. When you don’t know the backgrounds of those in the group, steer clear of topics that could be offensive.

It’s not about rules; it’s about respect

I hear folks say, “Wow, there are so many rules about what to say and what not to say, I think I’ll just shut up.” You can do that, but you and everyone else will miss out on what you have to contribute.

But it is about respecting what might make others uncomfortable. A lot of people give subtle signs of discomfort. If you’re not sure, ask. You will build a trusting relationship by showing that respect.

We have some interesting and possibly chaotic times ahead of us. The reality is, however, we have “talked the talk” for a very long time, and things haven’t changed. Today’s business world is diverse. We have data out the wazoo that says diversity is good for the business. Now it’s time to look at diversity through the lens of respect, and “walk the talk.”

And let’s be honest – the differences may not be visible.

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