Saturday, December 2

Gender Bias Doesn’t Just Hurt Women. It Hurts All Of Us. #BreakTheBias This Women’s Day

For all the progress that has been made, women remain under-represented at decision-making tables despite compelling evidence that gender diversity improves the quality of decisions being made. These better decisions lead to better outcomes on every measure that matters – stronger commercial results (a McKinsey study found that for every 10% increase in gender diversity, earnings before interest and taxes rose by a glaring 3.5%), greater social stability and reduced conflict and extremism (*Institute for Inclusive Security) and improved environmental sustainability. In other words, gender diversity at leadership tables isn’t just good for women, it’s good for humanity.

Of course the causes for the paucity of women at leadership tables are many and well documented. One of the most pervasive is the entrenched gender biases that tilt the playing field against women and make the climb to the top so much harder.

Given the tense and tragic events playing out on the international stage right now and the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women, it makes the theme of this years’ International Women’s Day – #BreakTheBias – more relevant than ever.

In the workforce, it is well established that women must contend with a host of biases that make the climb up an organizational ladder steeper and more arduous. For instance, when women act with equal assertiveness to men, they are perceived as being too bossy. Likewise, ambition and competitiveness are negatively correlated with like-ability for women whereas the opposite is true for men (as was evidenced in the famous Heidi/Howard experiment). On the flip side, when women conform to feminine gender norms, they’re perceived as less leaderlike than men. Damned if they do. Damned if they don’t. Double-binds abound.

Yet my motivation for writing this column is not to bemoan the barriers and biases. Rather it’s to champion women to rise above them – to back themselves more, doubt themselves less and embrace the difference their difference makes.

So if you’re a woman who sometimes holds back from putting yourself ‘out there’ for fear of what might happen if you do, this for you.

And if you are a man who happens to know even one woman who is her own harshest critic, then keep reading, because you play a pivotal role in creating a world in which women and men are equal partners on a level field.

But first, to women…

My dear fellow women,

You’ve had a really tough couple years. So if you’re not feeling like you’re on top of the world right now, there’s one thing I hope you will do for yourself above all else:

Get off your own back and be kind to yourself.

Two years ago, when the covid-wheels started to fall off the world, you couldn’t have imagined what lay ahead (which is probably a good thing!) Yet, despite how tough some days/week/months were (particularly if you had kids at home who required you to become a teacher overnight) you kept showing up. For your kids. For your colleagues. For your clients. For your partner (most days.) For life.

That itself deserves a standing ovation.

It’s little wonder that the surge capacity you tapped into in April 2020 has long since run dry and that you’re feeling a little (or a whole lot) burnt out.

Even beyond this pandemic that kept on keeping on (and on…and on…), you’ve simply had a lot on your plate. Chances are though, that you’ve tended to focus more on what you did not get done, or did not totally nail, or what you more you should have done, rather than on ALL that you did. As Kathy Calvin, former President and CEO of the UN Foundation shared with me, “We (women) hold ourselves to a very different standard than men hold themselves.”

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The maxim that “Done is better than perfect” is one I’ve long tried to live by, sometimes better than others. Along the way I’ve learned that as counterintuitive as it may sound, it is by ditching the perfectionist bar we use to beat up on ourselves that we liberate our energy to do more of what helps us thrive and rise.

Secondly, run your own best race.

That is, let go the negative comparisons you too often make, and usually with other women. You know the ones. Where you look over at Sally and think to yourself “If only I was as organized as her” or across at Maria and think “If only I had half the (insert-quality-here) as her.”

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In truth, Sally and Maria are likely looking at you with much the same thoughts. So, focus on doing the best you can with what you have and trust that this will be enough… that you are enough. To quote author Iyanla Vanzant, “Negative comparisons are an act of violence against oneself.” Clearly the world has more than enough violence without us adding to it.

Third, own your value and embrace your difference.

You’ve probably heard it said that if a fish judged itself by how well it could climb a tree, it would spend its life thinking it was a loser. Or something like that. The same applies to you and to all women. If God had wanted us to be like men, he’d have made us that way.

It’s what sets you apart that is your greatest super-power. If you are naturally affiliative rather than competitive, embrace that. Embrace everything that makes you, you! After all, our greatest strength lays in what sets us apart, not what makes us the same.

This isn’t to deride masculine leadership traits. But to celebrate feminine ones. In fact a landmark study by Korn Ferry Women CEOs Speak found that female CEO’s scored significantly higher on humility—indicative of a consistent lack of self-promotion, an expressed appreciation for others, and a tendency to share the credit—and were more likely to leverage others to achieve desired results. Women’s natural affiliative leadership style, empathy and ability to navigate ambiguity is so needed in today’s environment.

Fourth, defy your doubt and take the chance!

None of us are immune to that voice in our head that tells us that we lack what it takes. Letting it call the shots drives women to settle too fast, for too little and sell out on all they could be. I am going to make a guess that you don’t want to do that. So if you have a little voice in your head that is constantly critiquing your every action and interaction, recognize that it’s just your fear trying to spare you the humiliation of failure and then dare to do the very thing its urging you not to do (unless of course that is something utterly ridiculous… which is unlikely.)

For instance, if there’s a door of opportunity you’d like to open, let people know about it. And if there’s something you’d like someone to do (or stop doing), dare to ask. And if there’s an aspiration that keeps calling your name, dare to go after it… however big the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.

Finally, lead the change you want to see

Many women grew up in an environment in which their conceptions of leadership were intertwined with masculinity. The cultural norms of our childhood shaped our conceptions of how leaders and powerful people look (tall and strong) and think (competitively) and act (aggressively). In truth, power has no gender. It is not male; it is not female. It is within each of us. Yet the fastest way we lose power is buying into the false belief that we don’t have any.

So whatever problem you are currently facing, reclaim the power you have unwittingly given away to old conditioning and gender norms. Stand like you’re powerful. Talk like you’re powerful. Show up like you’re powerful. Each time you do, you amplify the difference that your difference makes.

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You don’t need a title to be a leader. Nor do you need to be asked or given permission or assigned into a formal role. Nope. All you need to do is to decide that you’re going to show up with the courage that you admire in some and want to see more of in others; that you will be the role model for other women you may wished you’d had yourself.

And for men…

Firstly, to the men who have read this far… thank you for caring about the women in your life and in the world.

I have a simple invitation for you in breaking the bias for International Women’s Day.

Champion more women to back themselves more often.

Write down the names of 10 women whom you sense sometimes get stuck in the belief that they lack what it takes to advance in any sphere. Then actively go out of your way to affirm their strengths, celebrate their success and encourage their ambition.

Ginny Rometty, CEO of IBM, often speaks of the huge impact her husband Mark had on her career in critical moments when she was doing what women so often do – underestimating herself. One time, after sharing with him that she’d told her boss she didn’t think she was ready to take over his job her husband looked her and said one thing that changed everything: “Do you think a man would have answered the question that way?”

Research shows that women make excellent leaders, possessing the crucial leadership attribute such as empathy, resilience, agility, managing ambiguity and courage that we most need today in organizations and society at large.

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Dismantling the bias that keeps women from contributing their highest point of contribution in the workplace and the world will take a collective effort. So let’s double down on breaking down the bias – in ourselves as well as calling it out – kindly but firmly – when we witness it in others (shaming or cancelling people for unconscious bias doesn’t serve anyone). Illumination, education and the courage to take risks are what’s needed here.

To share the hard-won wisdom of Julia Gillard, a woman who rose above gender bias in Australia to become the first female Prime Minister of her country:

“Changing the world, like living your own life well, requires a sense of purpose, the courage to pursue it and the preparedness to risk the most public of failures. Nothing big was ever achieved from cowering.”

So on this International Women’s Day, dare to be the leader needs you to be right now. As I shared in this recent keynote speaker, the world does not need your perfection, it needs your courage.

Margie Warrell, PhD, is a bestselling author, women’s leadership advocate, and Senior Partner at Korn Ferry. Connect on Linked In.

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