Gender Bias in the Workplace

“If we could get to a place of true equality, where what we do in life is determined not by gender, but by our passions and interests, our companies would be more productive and our home lives not just better balanced but happier,” – Sheryl Sandberg, “Now is Our Time”

As we culminated International Women’s Month, with its day being celebrated every year on March 8, it is also an opportunity to reflect and further discuss issues surrounding gender inequality. Gender inequality – a type of sex discrimination which results in a particular individual being treated prejudicially because of their gender – has been and still is prevalent in many aspects of our lives. Society has normalised categorising everything that we encounter as humans in order to make sense of the complex world around us. While the topic surrounding gender inequality is very broad, this article will only focus on gender inequality and bias within the workplace.

It has been normalised in most corporates around the world for women to encounter bias to a certain extent, mostly in a very subtle way. This problem is continuing despite efforts made by gender equality activists and women groups who made progress towards fighting these inequalities. Not only activists and women groups, but many corporates have also made concerted efforts to encourage equality and diversity. However, women remain disadvantaged and still occupy a less percentage in senior roles.

Although inequality is still rampant, women continues to push through gender barriers and more and more women are climbing the corporate ladder, and even go as far as following careers in industries that were believed to only be suitable for men.

This article attempt to explore the types of inequalities women face in the organisations they work for. Be it being openly oppressed, subtle discrimination or overly interrogated about their ideas, contributions and merits. Out of the many forms or gender bias in the workplace, we will address two critical ones that we believe are among the biggest contributors that hold the success of women back. It is our hope that by highlighting these, we create room for discussion and intervention.

Workplace Harassment/bullying /victimisation

Harassment or bullying in the workplace may take place in different forms. In most cases a person may be harassed by a colleague, a manager or a supervisor, even worse by a person who is a client to the organisation. Because harassment does not always have to be in a sexual nature, sometimes it is rooted in the cruel abuse of power and it becomes difficult with the organisation’s management as it is often misunderstood. It can be in a form of being victimised by a superior, where an employee is being degraded in the presence of others by passing negative feedback about their acumen, performance or lack thereof. These often go unchecked. Especially if the person or people doing sits at the bigger table in the organisation and receives a lot of support from the management. The audience tend to go silent and everyone pretends that they didn’t hear what just happened. Even if this kind of thing happens repeatedly, often the observers or witnesses tend to pretend its none of their business. This is really how workplace bullying and victimisation progresses. There is nothing wrong in giving feedback, but how and where it’s done is important. Also, the consistency of it as well.  Some get it easy and its given in a forgiving manner and others are made to feel worthless. Either way, women tend to suffer this the most and this in turn becomes one of the key contributors to their lack of confidence or low self-esteem. If a person doesn’t feel supported in an environment, then their growth is staggered and slowed down significantly. A true leader would identify when coaching or mentoring is required and nurture the potential, which would be followed by the necessary investment. Here are some quick nuggets in curbing workplace bullying or harassment of women:

  • Always make sure the standard of performance is understood across all levels. It is not only a management responsibility to understand the overall business strategy
  • Where there is someone struggling, invest the time and accelerate the performance where necessary. There are unfortunately no quick wins
  • Do wait for an audience to give feedback or input
  • Constantly ask yourself as a leader/manager or fellow employee if you are a contributor and to which narrative
  • Recognise the growth process of others and don’t judge them based on your own process
  • Become self-aware of your influence and how it affects others

Glass Ceiling

The reality of the glass ceiling for women is unquestionable. Glass ceiling is still prevalent in many industries around the world. According to an online definition, glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that prevents a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy. The metaphor was first coined by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women.

The concept of glass ceiling does not refer to all gender prejudice, however it refers to the women that are pronounced at a higher level of an organisational hierarchy than they are when in entry level positions. This form of inequality or rather bias, has been documented in various industries and setting. An article published by the Daily Maverick on the Commission for Gender Equality to SA universities: Employ women or face sanctions, has revealed that there is lack of top black academics, but women of all races also tend to be heavily outnumbered by their male counterparts in university teaching staff. This goes to show that even though women have advanced themselves through education over the years, they are still not represented in the top organisational hierarchy.

There are obviously many different reasons for that and in corporate what we have seen mostly is even if the number of women employed far outweighs that of men, the number of women in senior roles are far less. The imbalance is very obvious, and it gets worse when you start breaking it down by race, where you find black women specifically are grossly underrepresented.  The climb is hard for all women but even harder for black women. I have been observing keenly during my 15-year career in Human Resource of how less deserving men would be given the opportunity to occupy positions they are under qualified for, yet they still get a chance and the preference. Women who are on the exact level as the men in question would often be classified as not ready and needing more time to develop in their respective fields and skills needed to perform well at a senior level. My findings are that we are much harder on women than we are on men, and this is also a form of bias that prevents women from climbing the corporate ladder. Therefore, I believe the concept of glass ceiling was made up based on how accepting we are to advance men more than we do for women. Perhaps they present themselves better in interviews, but either way, once the incompetence is demonstrated and becomes crystal clear, we still continue to find excuses to defend and conceal such incompetence. The fight for women needs to intensify when it comes to breaking the notion of the glass ceiling. We cannot always be told that there is a gap that needs to be addressed or be directed by targets.

The ownership for the advancement of the women agenda lies with every employer and every manager that the employer has entrusted with that responsibility. Here are some quick tips in how as a leader you can help in breaking the glass ceiling:

  • Start working on a pipeline at both entry level graduate, learnership positions and that of middle managers
  • Revisit your talent interventions to establish if they are fit for purpose
  • Look at programmes and interventions that can address the specifics
  • Pair women up with other strong women and men (observe, tag along and learn)
  • Encourage coaching and mentoring circles – each one teaches one
  • Spend time with the talent and invest enough time in feedback and constant engagement
  • Understand from your talent what they deem as development areas and help them close the gaps in both ways you deem appropriate and how they think about closing them
  • Invite your talent to meetings and make opportunities available where they can demonstrate their skills and knowledge. This can be through projects they can own that would surface them beyond what they do on a daily basis
  • Create an environment where employees feel supported regardless of their gender, age or ethnicity
  • Share and make space for more success stories that create inspiration and confidence

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