Not long ago, I was a professional dabbler. I experimented with a range of career opportunities, thriving in most. Yet I never really hit professional pay dirt until I incorporated “no” into my vocabulary. Instead of yielding to shiny object syndrome, I’ve concentrated on the two things that matter most to me: Spending time with loved ones and becoming a renowned keynote speaker on the topic of creating superfans.
It turns out that Mandy Ginsberg, former CEO of billion-dollar business Match Group, had a similar epiphany. She recently resigned from high-powered mogul mode to take charge of her family and health. Her statements about these personal needs underline the different expectations of male and female leaders. As Ginsberg muses, “Maybe talking about breast implants, homes, and health are not standard topics for most CEOs to discuss. Maybe that’s because most CEOs are still men.”
Ginsberg’s and my decisions might be labeled “feminine.” The very act of making changes from the heart (and for the family) sounds traditionally female — and is routinely discounted in business. As revealed in a study on workplace gender bias by Yale University and New York University, stereotypically female traits like sensitivity and emotion often play second fiddle to stereotypically male traits like ambition and assertiveness. Ambition is a must-have leadership quality, while communality is considered an add-on trait. Though employees say they want empathetic managers (females), when push comes to shove, they feel more comfortable appointing tougher supervisors (males).
This is a problem of widespread proportions. Consequently, it’s being tackled by thought leaders such as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor at University College London and Columbia University. Chamorro-Premuzic posits in the Harvard Business Review that the answer isn’t just bringing women up the corporate ladder (a solution in which “women will have to out-male males”), it’s shifting our perception of good leadership performance. “Removing bias at the selection point will fix nothing if there’s still plenty of bias contaminating our performance management systems,” he writes.
Is eliminating bias a pipe dream? No. It’s hard, yet it’s worth pursuing. While merely promoting social diversity in leadership can result in “tokenism,” per another Harvard Business Review article, actually addressing unconscious bias in the workplace sets the tone for better opportunities for everyone.
If you’re tired of gender ceilings, pay disparities, and unbalanced performance reviews, get ready to make some major changes in your work attitude and workplace.
1. Stop being sorry for being you.
Put an end to apologizing for anything you do that makes you a better employee or person. As Ginsberg and I have learned, challenging the status quo starts individually with you and me — not necessarily with a corporate board or other leadership team. For instance, I’m third-trimester pregnant and still traveling to do keynote speaking. I don’t hide my baby bump, and I’m proud to ask for a stool if I need to sit. I haven’t said sorry for that once.
Here’s the raw truth: I own my decisions. By the time my baby’s born, I will have spoken to thousands of attendees at tons of national events. Yes, I’m pregnant, and yes, I wear heels. I’m not apologetic, and other women have thanked me for it. If more women and men were open about their personal needs, they could change leadership assumptions and expectations at their companies.
2. Call out microaggressions.
Biased behavior in the form of microaggressions (subtle discriminatory remarks or actions) have affected nearly three-quarters of women and more than half of men on the job, according to the 2019 “Women in the Workplace” study from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org. They may be unintentional, but the fallout is significant. “Microaggressions are particularly challenging to address because they often originate in seemingly innocent ways by people who don’t intend to be offensive,” notes Maria Smith, chief creative officer and partner at creative agency M&C Saatchi LA. “However, well-meaning employees might very well end up driving colleagues away and damaging their company because of unconscious biases.”
Every time you notice a slight or snub, call attention to the problem. Microaggressions are a form of culture toxicity, and without active acknowledgement, they eat away at the health of an organization. The next time you hear an offhand judgment or witness someone inappropriately overriding or taking credit for another’s decision, find your voice.
3. Become a pay equity advocate.
Women still get promoted less often, receive lower salaries, and endure more unfair performance expectations than men do. Pew Research Center data shows that the current average gender pay gap is about 15 cents. That means women make 85% of what men make. And women of color have it worse.
Address salary bias however you can at work, such as by advocating for transparency and petitioning for generous parenting leave. Encouraging paternity leave has been found to ameliorate the so-called “motherhood penalty,” making parental leave a win for both men and women. “Paternity leave benefits women in the workplace, not only by leading toward more equal divisions of labor at home — making it more likely that the mother will engage more fully in her career — but also in that it de-genders and destigmatizes the taking of leave during one’s career,” says Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return, a site for parents reintegrating into the workplace after taking leave.
Change starts at the micro level, not at some 30,000-foot height. Start modifying your own choices and habits with the end goal of reducing unconscious biases and discrimination throughout your organization. One person can really have a butterfly effect — and that one person is you.