Opening the dialogue on gender bias: if not you, who?

For International Women’s Day, I brought my 18-year old daughter to a Lean In Toronto Gender Bias workshop. She’s still in university, but I thought having an awareness of bias would be empowering for her as she starts her first work internship this summer. Afterwards, I shared with her some of my experiences with bias. […]

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For International Women’s Day, I brought my 18-year old daughter to a Lean In Toronto Gender Bias workshop. She’s still in university, but I thought having an awareness of bias would be empowering for her as she starts her first work internship this summer.

Afterwards, I shared with her some of my experiences with bias. In some cases, I hadn’t realized I it was bias until I’d gone into an emotional tailspin. In others, I saw it for what it was and actively took steps to change the situation. While painful, each occurrence provided me an opportunity to grow, become more resilient and more courageous.

We also discussed one of the questions that had been asked at the session, which was attended by about 100 women and a few men. It was: “What can I do if I notice bias, but I don’t feel comfortable talking to someone at work?”

This particular question resonated with me because there were times that I definitely did not feel comfortable talking to people at work. Asking for help, or even giving it, can feel overwhelming and intimidating, particularly when you’re starting your career.  As women, we’re also told we have to appear strong at all times, which is total BS. If nothing else, I’ve learned that asking for help is one of my core strengths. But that lesson didn’t come easy or early.

What I did to invite dialogue

Here’s my story: in 2011, mid-way through my career, some of the women I had previously worked with shared that they were feeling undermined or devalued at work. They felt they weren’t being given opportunities they had worked hard for. They were being minimized in ways they had never experienced. They were being critiqued for their looks, their style and in one case, even their height.  They were being told they were bitchy, cold, direct or emotional. Some were being paid less than their peers, and felt they had no one who would help them grow and develop their careers. They were starving to learn. 

I was shocked by this. When I had worked with these women, they were unstoppable rock stars! What the hell was going on? This was long before we knew of terms like gender bias, or had women’s empowerment books and groups. There weren’t a lot of resources available for women and I certainly had no clue who to go to. 

I did not have all the answers, and frankly, I wasn’t in a great place myself. I had just left a role with a company that had been the wrong choice from the beginning, and I was afraid of making the same mistake again. So I reached out to my network for help.  I thought we could all learn better and faster by broadening the circle. 

I emailed about 15 women that I had met in my career and asked them if they would like to join a group where we could talk openly, without fear of recrimination. The only ‘rule’ was that whatever we discussed stayed with us.  Originally, I had called it the ‘Cone of Silence’, but then, inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman”, changed it to “Maya’s Hive.”    

Here’s part of the email I sent to this group of women: 

“I would like to invite each of you – if you agree – to a dinner where we will talk openly about our careers, our lives and our aspirations as women. Everything will be under the ‘cone of silence’ – and since I know and trust all of you to my core – I know that you will feel this way about each other when you meet. Some of you have actually met before, but some relationships will be new. 
We are all seeking new paths, new sources of inspiration, and every time I talk with each of you, I am inspired in unbelievable ways. I want to share this feeling with all of you as a group – and see where it takes us.”

Everyone said yes, and we had our first meeting over dinner. It was incredible. I was almost in tears by the end of the introductions. Even though many of these women didn’t know each other, they didn’t hesitate to share their hopes and fears openly. 

Eight years later…

Much to my surprise and gratitude, these dinners have continued, and we’re now in our eighth year with over 40 women involved. Over the years, we’ve given each other our best advice, and coached each other on how to respond to negativity and tap into our power. These women share their secrets, their fears and their ambitions. When emotions run high, we don’t shut it down, we embrace it. We cry together, we laugh together, we call each other out (in a positive way) to emerge stronger and more resilient.  We confide our aspirations and support each other’s dreams, however crazy. We don’t judge anything. We just focus on how we could help each other. 

Our little group of women has expanded to new members of all ages and disciplines. These same women bring their strength to new members and many of the negative stories have shifted to positive ones. I am always surprised to find out that the relationships have deepened, and that these women often call on each other in between dinners to ask advice. I schedule our ‘sessions’ every two or three months, or when someone reaches out to me and says: “I need a Hive dinner!” so that they can get advice on an issue. We leave feeling strong and supported.  

It has been an incredible and uplifting experience. I am so proud of the positive changes we’ve made in our lives and the courage we’ve shown. Every single person has stood for themselves (and for others), has made positive changes and is a person of such high integrity it makes my heart soar.  And I know that I have this amazing sisterhood I can call on, without question, as do they.  

Talking about bias is emotional. It attacks our core, our confidence and our integrity. It can be hard to recognize, and even harder to talk about. But we must if we are to change it.

So, if you wonder what one person can do to start a dialogue on gender bias, just look in the mirror and say ‘Hey, if not me, who? If not now, when?’ I think you’ll have the answer pretty quickly. 

Carolyn Ray is the Founder and CEO of AUTHENTICA, which helps organizations build brands that embrace authenticity and purpose. Connect with her at @thecarolynray.

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