4 ways to confront “second-generation” gender bias in the workplace

Posted by Shelly Eweka.
Earlier this year, the great Serena Williams triumphantly returned to tennis after having a baby, making it to the U.S. Open final. The chair umpire (unfairly) accused her of cheating, and she was (understandably) enraged—smashing her racket in frustration. Consequently, she was penalized—and ultimately lost the match. Some commentators recalled all the male tennis players (Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe) who famously raged and broke rackets on court, without paying the same price.
Reacting to the Williams incident in The Cut, Rebecca Traister observed that women’s behavior, expression and tone are still deemed unruly if they do not conform to the limited view of femininity established by men, especially if that unruliness suggests a direct threat to male authority.1
“Be assertive—but not too assertive.”
If such an entrenched double standard exists in so high-profile an arena, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that women confront similar (or bigger) challenges in all professions.
Companies put their employees on “assertiveness training” courses, while therapists urge patients to “assert their needs.” Like self-esteem, assertiveness is offered as a modern panacea—and traditionally, a masculine trait. So, when a man raises his voice in a meeting, he is widely seen as authoritative, commanding, can-do. However, when a woman like me does it, we expose ourselves to the charge of being “abrasive” or “aggressive.” On the one hand, women are encouraged to be assertive, both with clients and internally, but judged negatively for it, on the other. How to walk such a narrow tightrope? For starters, don’t lose your nerve. Put your best foot forward and take these four steps:
Step 1: Recognize that it’s “second-generation” bias
The first step in tackling second-generation bias is recognizing that it exists. Even though legal obstacles and overt discrimination have been removed, covert “second-generation” sexism lingers on. It’s subtle, and people often perpetuate it unconsciously or unintentionally. Women like Serena Williams still have to operate within a narrower band of acceptable behavior. Until second-gen bias goes away, there are ways we can assert ourselves in the workplace without paying a high price.
I’ve always looked up to Serena Williams. My spirit animal is a roaring, blazing red lion—and like Serena, I’m passionate about my job, very assertive and don’t mind being the center of attention. I make friends easily and take charge of situations others shy away from.
My personality is like a bright light—sometimes it hurts people’s eyes, but when it’s dark, it can help shed light on things. When I need to speak up I do, but have also learned to hide my light under a bushel, encouraging other voices to be heard. That’s why diversity is so important. We all bring something unique to the table. I have coworkers with innovative ideas on how to tackle a certain problem, yet they struggle to assert themselves in meetings, intimidated by other people in the room. They worry about being judged, their ideas dismissed. Sometimes, it’s natural shyness—and other times, they are concerned about being labeled a certain way due to their gender. The result? Valuable thoughts and perspectives go unheard.
Step 2: Be yourself, unapologetically
You can deal with second-generation bias more effectively if you get a better understanding of your own personality. The technical language of data-driven personality testing gives us a neutral vocabulary of non-judgmental adjectives to replace blame words like “aggressive,” “angry” or “emotional” when making sense of our own (and coworkers’) behavior. I’ve taken Myers-Briggs type tests about four times, and they’ve always been spot on. It’s fascinating to read the results of psychometric tests. They identify our strengths, and help us to tap into our best selves—while highlighting areas for development. Everyone has blind spots and biases. I would guess that I’d score around 90 in assertiveness (meaning, if you put me in a room with 99 random people, only 10 of them would be more assertive than me). This level of self-analysis and self-awareness is uncomfortable at first, but ultimately liberating.
Personality tests have helped me accept and be kinder to myself. Reconceptualizing my strong, ballsy, non-gender-typical personality, using the Myers-Briggs instrument stopped me from making apologies for who I am.
Side note: Though still popular in the business world, the Myers-Briggs framework is considered somewhat outdated. Today, the “Big 5” personality test is more commonly used by psychologists. It scores people on a scale of 0 to 100 on traits Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (OCEAN).
Step 3: Replace gender stereotypes with personality types
Learn about your coworkers’ personalities, too. The funny thing about self-reported personality tests is that people are often more accurate measuring the personalities of friends and coworkers than their own. You can probably judge your manager’s character better than she can. And the more you know about someone’s personality type, the less likely you are to take it personally, when they act a certain way. Assuming the positive instead of the negative will help you. Negatively reacting to a coworker’s “calm down!” will most likely only make matters worse. You can’t control your feelings of annoyance or fury, but you can choose not to express those emotions with hostile body language or passive-aggressive emails.
When we have a relationship conflict at work (or anywhere else), we tend to blame the other person, seeing ourselves as the victim of their bad behavior. There’s a passage in the Bible that states, “Whenever you blame another you condemn yourself,” which today’s cognitive behavioral therapists echo when they observe that blame only leads to hostility, resentment and chronic conflict. In other words, reacting angrily to a condescending comment usually ends up reinforcing the behavior that made you angry to begin with.
I have a sunny disposition, scoring low in negative emotions and high in enthusiasm. Not everyone is endowed with these positive traits, so when I’m around someone who lacks my enthusiasm, I understand how pointless (and annoying) it would be to implore them to “be cheerful!” Infuriatingly, this injunction tends to get hurled at women more often than men. As the philosopher Marilyn Frye writes, “Anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry, or dangerous.” Viewing ourselves as individuals with different personality types, rather than through the lens of gender stereotypes, can help to liberate us from second-gen bias.
Step 4: “To be” or not “to be?” Try “to feel’ instead…
Viewing personalities through the lens of psychometrics, a coworker goes from being “a pushy woman” to a person “high in trait assertiveness,” while your boss is no longer “a socially inept man” but a person “low in extraversion.”
Still, not every interaction is going to be successful. And the quickest way to make an unpleasant exchange deteriorate is to blame or criticize in an objective way, using the verb “to be”: “My boss is wrong…my coworker is obnoxious.” While you conceptualize their actions that way, you will stay trapped in an unproductive “right vs. wrong” mindset. But when you avoid “to be” and communicate from your subjective perception, you avoid that pitfall.
So, consider starting your sentence with the words “I think,” or “I feel.” That way, you invite the other person into your experience. Instead of shutting down or blaming a coworker’s mistake, you can say something like: “I think there’s a misunderstanding.” When tempted to conclude that a coworker “is” obnoxious, try formulating it differently: “I didn’t feel comfortable when he said x or did y.” If you simply share your thoughts, perspectives or ideas in a subjective manner you move past the fear of mistakes or right vs. wrong.
When we begin looking at each other as individuals with a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits, including assertive women and compassionate men, and regarding behavior as the result of fixed personalities rather than some gender stereotype we are or aren’t conforming to, we can be more forgiving of ourselves—and others, opening the door to more productive, respectful communication.
1 “Serena Williams and the Game That Can’t Be Won (Yet): What rage costs a woman.” The Cut, September 2018.
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November 20, 2018