Strategies For Outsmarting Workplace Gender Bias

Women are told to "lean in" to their careers, but often face pushback if they have traits that aren't "feminine" enough. While it may seem like we are damned if we do and damned if we don't, there are some things women can do to dodge gender bias at work.

There’s no shortage of career advice for women telling them to be more confident, “lean in” to their careers, and thrive. Yet, as antiquated as it seems, there’s also no shortage of pushback when confident, assertive women are tough managers in the workplace and elsewhere.

“As a woman, in many ways, people are expecting you to be a pleaser and when you’re not, and when you’re unapologetic and you don’t couch your ideas, but you deliver them very confidently, you throw people,” says leadership consultant Selena Rezvani, author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up for What They Want.

Sure, you could ignore the perception and remain your hard-charging self. But even as you put forth your own brand of chutzpah, experts say there are some strategies you can use to win over even the most gender-entrenched skeptics. Counter—or avoid altogether—your critics with these strategies.

Start with good management basics.

Career consultant Jennifer K. Crittenden, author of The Discreet Guide for Executive Women, says that being authoritative or demanding may be stereotypically male and being nurturing or warm may be stereotypically female, but there are management strengths that are decidedly gender-neutral. If you win over people by being collaborative, clear in your communication, and focused on problem-solving, you’ve built a foundation of trust and respect.

“Then, as people get to know you and they understand your reputation, they’re less likely to be uncomfortable as you show an array of characteristics that might not be typically female, like being more demanding or assertive,” she says.

Remind them why you’re there.

Victoria Pynchon had a longtime career as a trial attorney and litigator before she cofounded She Negotiates, LLC, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that helps women become better negotiators and leaders. In her previous role, she often had to be tough and aggressive, which wasn’t always well-received by colleagues or even clients.

When she felt that her demeanor was off-putting, she would simply remind them, “I’m a litigator. This is why you hired me.” Emphasizing the value of your strengths and the value they have is effective in defusing negative perception, she says.

Use humor to your advantage.

Rezvani says that humor is a highly effective tool in preventing gender-based pushback. Making jokes—appropriate jokes, of course—can give women “insider status,” she says.

“We’ve all been in one of those thigh-slapping, fraternity types of environments whether it’s been in business school or all-male executive team where there’s one woman, and you make choices. Making jokes, especially zingers like the guys do, is a way to build rapport,” she says.

Seek out like-minded women.

Pynchon also says that finding other strong women within your organization and elsewhere can be very important. It’s likely that women leaders have had common experiences, and you can share strategies for dealing with them, she says.

Sometimes, that calls for subverting the system and helping each other. For example, she says one top law firm has a formal women’s network within it. When a woman in one area of the practice got a lead on a piece of business for another practice area, she would refer it to the fellow network member instead of the practice head.

They weren’t breaking any rules—there was no required protocol for referring business. However, this practice allowed the women to help each other bolster their new business numbers, which are an important metric for promotions at law firms.

Seek training.

We can all get better at our management skills and training can be a key factor in doing so, says leadership development expert Wendy Capland, founder of Vision Quest Consulting in Westford, Massachusetts. So, while it might be those around you with the problem, training can help you better navigate many situations, she says.

Pynchon agrees. In one top law firm where high-ranking women aren’t common, she said that training was a strong defense against overlooking women for promotions.

“When someone would say a particular woman shouldn’t be promoted because she was lacking a skill, the women partners would counter with, ‘I don’t see how that’s possible because she got the negotiation training or the executive presence training,” she says. It also doesn’t hurt to have training programs for men working with strong women, she adds.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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1 Comments

  • April Drake

    Fabulous. I need to read this today. I've been laid-off recently even though I was a strong performer, and after a lot of reflection I do believe my strong personality is indeed a liability especially in highly gender-biased corporate cultures. I especially like the part about 'reminding them of why you are there' and plan to use all of these 'tools' in my future endeavors.