Breaking the Glass Ceiling: 5 Tips to Fix Gender Bias at Your Organization

Posted on November 1, 2017

Rosalind Kazi

Rosalind Kazi

Head of Content at Skill Boosters and Jennifer Juo, HR and L&D Insights Writer at Udemy for Business

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Gender bias continues to persist as an issue in the workplace today, despite our best efforts to address them. In the recently released Women in the Workplace 2017 report, women are still woefully underrepresented in leadership positions throughout the corporate pipeline.

How gender bias is affecting women in the workplace today

In the report, McKinsey & Co and Lean In highlighted some of the key situations where unconscious bias surfaces as a roadblock for women in the workplace. In particular, women at work:

  • Are 18% less likely to be promoted than their male peers at entry levels

  • Ask for promotions at comparable rates to men, but are not promoted at the same rate

  • Are less likely to receive advice from managers and senior leaders on career advancement, yet employees who do are more likely to be promoted.

  • Get less access to senior leaders

  • Are less interested in becoming top executives as they see the pros and cons of senior leadership differently.

When it comes to the skills needed to be a “leader” such as being assertive, women are judged more harshly than men. A new study by New York Times bestselling authors, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, revealed that when women are judged as “forceful” or “assertive,” their perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived worth by $15,088. In contrast, when men are judged as “forceful,” their competency only drops by 22% and their worth only dips by $6,547. These differences show that gender bias serves as a real barrier for women rising into leadership roles, where assertiveness is a valued trait.

In a well-known Harvard Business School study cited in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, two groups read the same case study about an entrepreneur who uses savvy networking and leadership skills to build a business—except one is named Howard and the other Heidi. The two groups’ response: Howard was a likeable guy but Heidi, not so much. When a man is successful, everyone likes him. When a woman is successful, both women and men like her less.

In other words, women who aren’t assertive are likely being passed over because they don’t have “leadership traits,” while those women who are assertive are seen as incompetent and not likeable. It’s a no-win situation for women.

It’s not surprising that women are underrepresented at higher levels of the corporate pipeline. This disparity between how male and females progress along the corporate ladder is the most significant in financial and technology sectors. Women make up 55% of manager-level employees, but only 15% of C-Suite officers, and just 5% of CEOs. When it comes to women of color, representation in these top jobs is even less.

But how can organizations break the glass ceiling of gender bias? Here are 5 tips to change how women are hired, treated, and promoted in your workplace.

1. Make sure your workforce is aware of gender bias

The first step is for your employees to become self-aware of their unconscious biases and how these may affect their decision-making. In the Udemy for Business and Skill Boosters course on Tackling Gender Bias in the Workplace, bias experts Professor Binna Kandola and Dr Jo Kandola of business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola examine some of the ways we can begin to understand our biases around gender and what we can do to correct them. How gender and other stereotypes influence our thinking is also examined in the Udemy for Business and Skill Boosters course on Understanding Unconscious Bias. Both courses provide a way to increase awareness of bias and stereotypes and train your employees in how to overcome them.

It is also important to be aware that gender bias goes both ways, impacting negatively on both men and women in the workplace. The stereotype of a “forceful” or “assertive” leader can also disadvantage men who don’t fit this stereotype and who may be passed up for a promotion as a result. Gender expectations around parenthood can also have an impact, with women being more likely to be allowed to work from home or have flexible hours to balance childcare obligations, while men who wish to be active parents often get penalized in the workplace for requesting similar flexible working practices.

2. Audit for bias across the entire talent management lifecycle

Although self-awareness is a good first step, nothing will change unless legacy HR processes and practices are reformed to correct bias. Unfortunately, leaders mean well and express a desire to increase diversity and gender equality, but when they actually make hiring and promotion decisions—they tend to fall back on their own unconscious biases of selecting people like themselves. This means you’ll need to review and alter how you write your job descriptions, screen resumes, select and interview candidates, and determine compensation to eliminate bias. Internally, examine practices for leadership succession planning, leadership development, and promotion reviews to make sure women have equal opportunities. Read Fixing Unconscious Biases with Processes that Change Behavior.

2. Set targets and accountability for gender parity

Aside from reforming your HR processes, if your organization is serious about gender equality, the next step is to set targets, track metrics, and build in accountability. Without metrics to strive toward, nothing will happen. This may mean ensuring you have a diverse slate of candidates—both women and men of different backgrounds and race—before you move forward interviewing candidates for leadership positions. Goals could include aiming for 50% men and 50% women in your management team (manager, director, C-Suite, Board) by a certain date. Once you set your metrics, review progress towards them and keep improving your HR processes.

3. Train and hold hiring managers accountable

Too often senior leaders espouse a commitment to gender and diversity inclusion, but lack follow-through and accountability to ensure this actually occurs down the ranks from recruiters to hiring managers. If you want to move the needle, train your managers to watch for bias and encourage them to mentor and nurture women on their team. It’s also important to hold them accountable for reaching gender targets when it comes to hiring and promoting people. Attaining these gender and diversity targets should be part of evaluating managers’ performance—or let’s be honest, nothing will happen.

4. Create a female mentoring program

Only 56% of organizations have formal mentoring programs for women, according to a recent survey. However, mentoring is a powerful way to give mentees the break they need to both develop and advance within organizations. Mentors in leadership positions can serve as advisors and champions for promotions.

In fact, research shows that mentoring programs can make organizations’ managerial ranks more diverse. On average they boost the representation of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, by 9% to 24%. In industries like chemicals and electronics, mentoring programs also increase the ranks of white women and black men by 10% or more.

However, mentoring programs must be done right to be effective. Companies with successful mentoring programs like Netsuite match women with mentors (regardless of gender) who work two levels above and are in other departments. The structured program also builds in events for networking and regular email communications on topics for mentorship pairs to discuss.

5. Introduce specific programs targeted at women

Research has shown that specific programs like college recruitment efforts to increase female hires do actually make a difference. According to the Harvard Business Review, 5 years after a company implements a college recruitment program targeting female employees, the share of white women, black women, Hispanic women, and Asian-American women in its management rises by about 10%, on average.

Other programs like targeting high-performing females to participate in leadership programs or internships that enable women who have taken time off for child-rearing to transition back to work can all contribute to boosting the number of women at the top.

Often women themselves opt out of promotions or leadership positions because they’re juggling childcare. Enabling women to “do it all” by introducing more workplace flexibility, telecommuting options, work/life balance, onsite childcare, and extended maternity/paternity leave can encourage more women to climb the upper echelons.

In fact, the same flexibility and extended paternity leave are just as important for male employees so that childrearing is an equally shared task between men and women, rather than the women’s job by default. For example, Amazon recently launched a revolutionary family leave program that lets women share up to 6 weeks of their paid leave—so their spouse can take time off to care for a newborn instead and get paid by Amazon to do this.

Let’s stop talking and start doing

The Women in the Workplace report concluded that the progression of women’s equality is advancing so slowly that parity could take more than a century at current rates. Should we wait another century? It is time we stopped talking and started doing. Going beyond unconscious bias training, organizations will need to implement a whole host of new HR processes and accountability targets to really move the needle and change behavior.

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