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How Can We Battle Gender Bias While Everyone Is Watching?

Gender bias is still pervasive. We are all part of the solution to make change.

Today's guest post is by my colleague, Sherylle J. Tan, Ph.D.

With the beginning of a new administration in Washington, DC, we now have a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) woman as the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. This is a huge step for equity and representation!

We also have more women in Congress, 144 women up from 127, and the composition of women has become slightly more diverse as well, gaining four more women of color in Congress bringing us to 52 women. These are all victories to be celebrated. And after a century since women (specifically White women) won the right to vote, it shows progress.

While we must celebrate, we cannot sit back and relax. We must work harder than ever before to ensure that these first women are not the only nor the last. All eyes will be on Vice President Harris and she will be held to great scrutiny because she is the first woman and because she is a BIPOC woman.

Change is happening, however, we would be naive if we believed that gender and racial bias is not involved in how Vice President Harris is viewed. Gender bias in the form of implicit bias and second-generation gender bias is pervasive. These implicit, that is, invisible and unconscious, biases are a constant barrier for women in leadership. Similarly, second generation gender bias, or our cultural beliefs that reinforce the status quo by inadvertently favoring men, creates structural and systemic barriers that keep women from leadership (Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb, 2013). Factors such as the lack of role models for women and the double bind that women face perpetuate these biases.

Lack of role models

There is no precedent for a woman as vice president of the U.S. While we may have seen it on television, this is our first experience in the real world. For this reason, Vice President Harris’ each and every action will be looked at closely as others try to find evidence for why a woman should not be in this position of power. The good news is that with more women in leadership, more people are exposed to women as leaders and this can reshape people’s beliefs about what leadership should look like.

The vice president and the women in Congress have become role models and that can be powerful. Learning about women leaders as well as seeing women in leadership positions helps women adjust their gender stereotype beliefs of leadership (Dasgupta & Asgari, 2004).

Double-bind

Vice President Harris will have to be cognizant of how she leads and, inevitably as all women must, have to choose between being liked or being perceived as competent. She must navigate the double-bind, which is the idea that women must be feminine enough to be likable but also competent enough to be a good leader. Women cannot be viewed as being both. When women are not viewed as exhibiting feminine behaviors like kindness or nurturance, they are penalized as a leader no matter how competent they may be.

Because of the double-bind, women have to prove their worth over and over again (Williams & Dempsey, 2014) despite a strong track record. Women’s performance is often judged or evaluated according to different standards. Thus, women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves for the same recognition or less reward as men. This is a challenge that the vice president has no doubted already experienced.

Strategies to counteract gender bias

While the increase in representation at the national level is promising, there is still work to be done to actively combat gender bias. No matter what your gender, we all must make a concerted, conscious effort to counteract gender bias. Here are two strategies:

● Celebrate and promote other women. Other women’s success is our success. When we acknowledge and champion the accomplishments of women, then more women become visible as leaders and role models. This visibility helps to adjust our views of who can be a leader.

● Interrupt negative stereotypes. Language makes a difference. When you hear inappropriate narratives that reinforce negative stereotypes of women, speak up. Language and phrases like “she is so emotional” or “she is too bossy” subverts women’s capability and competence to lead. Call it out and shift the narrative.

Dr. Sherylle J. Tan is an author, leadership coach, and educator with over 20 years of experience in higher education, research, and non-profit consulting. Most recently, she co-authored with Lisa DeFrank-Cole: Women and Leadership: Journey Toward Equity (2021).

References

Dasgupta, N., & Asgari, S. (2004). Seeing is believing: Exposure to counterstereotypic women leaders and its effect on the malleability of automatic gender stereotyping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 642-658.

Ibarra, H., Ely, R., & Kolb, K. (2013, September). Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review, 61-66.

Williams, J. C., & Dempsey, R. (2014). What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. New York: NY: New York University Press.

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