CONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
When it comes to what holds women back, it is hard not to start with the obvious: good old-fashioned sexism and sexual harassment. Even though I’ve tried to explain that it is not uncommon for women to face sexual harassment in the workplace, most of my male friends and colleagues simply don’t understand how pervasive it truly is.
I’ve shared personal stories to highlight what I and others have faced as we worked our way up the ladder. I tell them about the day I gave a major presentation to a group of male colleagues. I was twenty-five years old and had been recently promoted. It was my first time presenting to this group of managers. The room was freezing, and my light sweater wasn’t enough to keep me warm. One of the executives announced he couldn’t focus on what I was saying because my “headlights” were blinding him. I can still remember the shame I felt as the entire room burst into laughter.
Then there was the night that a team of managers and I went out for a celebratory dinner. We were in Atlanta at a sales meeting, and we’d had a long day of presentations, talks, and client negotiations. We were tired but excited by our success. We went out to enjoy a delicious meal and some very fine wine. After dinner, my boss’s boss and I entered the elevator to go to our hotel rooms. He turned, cornered me, and stuck his sloppy tongue down my throat. I pushed him away. He did it again. When we arrived at my floor and the doors to the elevator opened, he held my arm and begged me to come up to his room. I yanked my arm away, raced to my own room, and spent the night wondering what I had done to invite his unwelcome advances. The fact that I was married seemed to be irrelevant to him.
These examples are just two of many I could list from my own life, and I am not unique. And yet, my male friends and colleagues argue that surely this kind of overt harassment is a thing of the past. Not so much. Consider what Trae Vassallo,52 a former general partner at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, learned when she sent out a survey to her vast network of high-profile women in technology.
Trae had worked alongside Ellen Pao, who notoriously tried to sue KPCB for creating a hostile workplace rife with sexual harassment. Ellen lost her lawsuit, and the talk around Silicon Valley was that it wasn’t a company or a systemic issue, just one cranky woman. Trae knew she had faced issues around sexual harassment and guessed other women had as well.
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She decided to get data. In the fall of 2015, Trae partnered with researcher Michele Madanksy to create a survey called the “Elephant in the Valley.”53 She asked her network to respond anonymously and heard back from more than 200 women, most of whom had ten or more years of experience in tech. The results were astonishing:
And those results aren’t unique to the tech industry. I’ve worked in financial services, packaged goods, journalism, and advertising. I’ve researched the military, academia, and medicine. The data is consistent: Women face overt harassment and conscious bias in just about every industry.54
As one father said to me, “It’s enough to want to make you lock your daughters in a tower.”
Don’t worry, dads; we’re big girls. We can handle it. We have been for years. We, finally, have laws and systems in place to help us. And while these systems and laws are often flawed, they are far better than the nothing we had before. Most of us can deal with conscious bias. It’s the unconscious bias that’s so truly insidious.
Study after study has shown that when two candidates with similar skills and abilities are placed next to each other, the candidate with the male-sounding name (e.g., Jack versus Jill) is invariably offered the job, the promotion, the higher pay. One recent study showed that within just two short years of graduation, female MBAs are paid 20 percent less than their male peers who graduated with them from the same schools and entered the same careers and, sometimes, who even worked at the same companies.55 Perhaps this is because, as some have suggested, the women weren’t as good at negotiating their pay. Or, as others have suggested, perhaps it’s because they were facing a system that is perfectly happy to pay them less.
The good news is that much attention is finally being given to unconscious bias. Companies are finally taking action to deal with it and how it leads to discrimination in the workplace. For example, in 2015 the CEO of Intel committed $300 million to eradicate bias in his workplace, with much of the money geared to efforts focused on unconscious bias.
Change is happening but it will take years to see any real results. Meanwhile, for women, conscious and unconscious bias is simply the cost of doing business.
Sadly, it’s what happens when we become mothers that crushes the professional dreams of so many bright, talented women.
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