In junior high, I attended my first career fair. Students had various sessions to choose from and it was the first time I remember thinking seriously about my future career and what I wanted to be when I grew up. Being the daughter of a car buff, I enthusiastically chose the session on automotive careers. I quickly realized I was the only girl in my class to choose this option. The presenter (who owned a car dealership) immediately recognized this anomaly too and started his presentation by asking, “What is a girl doing here, and are you sure you’re in the right room?” I definitely got the message that this technical career choice wasn’t for girls.
After school, I recalled my disappointing experience to my parents who 1) pledged never to buy a car from that dealership, and 2) assured me that I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. I appreciated their support at the time, and I appreciate it even more now as my career path has led me not only to a leadership role, but also one that has touched many industries traditionally dominated by men: agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and financial services.
The recent observation of International Women’s Day is more than an annual celebration. It’s an ongoing call to recognize gender bias and take steps to eliminate it. The goal of gender equality has special relevance for business leaders who happen to be women. Bias barriers hurt not only women leaders, but everyone in their organization. Together, we can break those barriers down. I’m confident that most women, especially those in leadership roles, can recount a pivotal experience that reinforced how gender bias affected their career path. Some embraced this as a challenge meant to be overcome; others may have felt deterred and changed their path.
It’s all about the numbers
For all the progress that’s been made toward gender equality in the workplace, more remains to be achieved. Compared to past generations, many more women work today — but a significant gender gap still exists. In the U.S., about 66% of men are in the workforce, compared to 55% of women. The pay gap is even wider: In 2020, for every dollar that men earned, women earned just 84 cents. But the biggest gap of all is in management-level leadership, where men far outnumber women. The disparity exists even though most Americans agree that women and men are equally qualified to lead. So why aren’t both genders equally represented in management?
The dilemma of descriptors
Part of the answer is in the pairing of gender with descriptions of leadership. We’ve all heard terms like “strong woman” and “lady boss.” Many of us have used those terms, most of us with no ill intent — but they can be problematic and even offensive. The issue with those terms is their implied meaning. Describing a woman in power as a “strong woman” instead of as a “strong leader” suggests that strength in women is unusual and therefore needs to be noted. Similarly, the label “lady boss” tacitly states that bosses are expected to be men.
If you made a list of the qualities that any great leader should have, it likely would include:
Motivating and encouraging others to succeed
Leading by example, not just by words
Being honest and transparent
Helping to develop the next generation of leaders
Your gender doesn’t define what traits you have, so why qualify leadership with gender?
Gender bias isn’t just an issue for women. Persons of any gender should be free to express the personality traits that come naturally to them, leveraging them for success in their chosen professions. A woman in the workplace whose personality happens to be decisive and goal-oriented should be able rise as far as her talents will take her without being considered “abrasive” or “abrupt.” Similarly, a man who isn’t inclined to lead but instead is naturally compassionate and empathetic should be free to nurture others without being considered “weak.”
This year’s International Women’s Day calls on all of us to “Break the Bias.” Like every good leader, those of us who are committed to positive change don’t just talk — we act. Throughout your workday, ask yourself:
Am I maintaining the same mindset with female and male coworkers?
Do I celebrate my coworker's accomplishments equally, regardless of their gender?
If someone I work with says or writes something that’s biased, stereotyped, or discriminatory, am I willing to challenge it?
Working toward gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. Because when we clear the way for all our business leaders to achieve, success will follow.
Have examples of how you're overcoming workplace gender bias? I want to hear from you.