A Practical Guide To Breaking Workplace Gender Bias (Once and For All)

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While a stack of progress has been made towards gender equality, we still have a long way to go in work and life at large.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #BreakTheBias is a timely reminder that we all have a role to play in creating a world free from stereotypes and discrimination. And one of the most powerful places to start is in the workplace.

Gender bias and gender-based discrimination exist both consciously and unconsciously at work. It can be as subtle as not offering flexible work arrangements that allow women to juggle formal and informal work, and as obvious as overlooking someone for a promotion based on their gender and life stage.

In Australia, just 18.3% of CEOs are women and only 38.1% of full-time workers are women (according to WGEA). But achieving workplace gender equality has the power to boost national economic growth, increase productivity and foster a diverse and inclusive work environment.

So, let’s dive into what gender bias can look like in the workplace and a stack of practical steps business owners, leaders and managers can take to break it once and for all.

What is gender bias?

First up, let’s cover what gender bias actually looks like. In a nutshell, gender bias is the act of showing preference or prejudice to one gender over another. The result? Well, the other gender loses out and can face discrimination or an unfair disadvantage.

But there are different ways gender bias can play out, either consciously or unconsciously.

Conscious bias means someone is fully aware of the bias they’re showing towards another person. This could look like promoting a male employee over a female employee, and explicitly stating their decision was based on gendered assumptions that men are “better leaders” than women.

On the flip side, unconscious bias can be a lot more subtle. In this case, our decision-making is influenced by perceptions, attitudes and beliefs that we don’t explicitly realise we hold.

Typically, these gender biases are shaped by societal stereotypes (through media, pop culture and even the language our parents and families use at home) that tend to label women as more “emotional and caring” and men as “assertive leaders”.

How does gender bias show up in the workplace?

So, let’s bring this back to work. From hiring to promotions and even pay rises, gender bias is a factor that can leave women on the back foot in our careers and impact our financial futures.

Here’s what the stats tell us:

In practical terms, there are a stack of ways gender bias can impact our experience at work, including:

  • Performance support bias: giving one gender (usually men) more support, resources and opportunities than the other.
  • Performance review bias: viewing the work of one gender differently from another.
  • Performance reward bias: giving an employee of one gender greater rewards (such as promotions, raises and bonuses) than the other, regardless of merit.
  • The ‘glass ceiling’: this is the compounding effect of a lack of support, recognition and opportunities that prevents one gender (usually women) from reaching upper-level roles in management and leadership.

Practical steps to smash gender bias at work

These stats only give a glimpse into a much bigger picture, and are compounded for women from marginalised and underrepresented identities. But identifying gender bias in the workplace is just the first step.

Let’s walk you through a range of tangible ways you can understand and break gender bias in your own organisation and work towards a more equal world.

1. Look at the data and pinpoint existing gender biases

First up, it’s important to take a step back and consider any existing gender imbalances that might be at play in your organisation.

This means taking an honest look at the data of your workforce and considering:

  • What is the gender ratio of your company? Does this change based on departments or teams?
  • Are there any gendered trends in your retention data? For example, are women resigning at a higher rate than men?
  • Are there any gendered trends in recognition and rewards for your team? For example, are male employees promoted at faster rates than female employees? Do male employees receive higher bonuses than female employees?

Armed with this data, your business can start to identify trends and patterns that might be influenced by gender bias. This will give you the hard facts to make data-informed changes to your organisation (more on that next!).

2. Rethink your recruitment processes

At every point in the hiring journey, gender bias has the potential to creep in and influence your team’s decision-making. So, here are a few things to keep in mind to reimagine your recruitment processes:

  • Critically reflect on the language used in your job descriptions and consider using gender-neutral language that will resonate with both male and female candidates.
  • Consider blind evaluations of resumes and CVs to shortlist candidates based on experience and skills, rather than gender.
  • Take a look at your interview questions and ensure they allow both genders to showcase their expertise (did you know that women are more likely to be interrupted in interviews than male applicants?).

3. Create a structured approach to performance and pay reviews

Take the guesswork out of your team’s progression and promotions by setting out clear KPIs and scheduling performance reviews from day one.

This takes some of the discretion out of pay increases and internal promotions and gives your team clear deliverables and criteria to track their performance against.

Plus, it takes the onus off employees to start conversations about pay and promotions, giving everyone a more equal opportunity to be recognised and rewarded for their hard work.

4. Build a workplace culture that supports diversity and inclusion

There are important steps your organisation can take to break gender bias on a day-to-day basis, too.

This means considering the different ways your people may want to work, and making flexible work arrangements a reality for your team. This approach gives women a genuine opportunity to fully participate in the workforce (while raising a family or juggling care responsibilities).

Plus, it’s important to show that your team will be supported at all life stages. So, it’s worth reflecting on your current parental leave arrangements and considering if this is attracting and retaining the best talent for the long term.

And that’s a wrap! When it comes to breaking gender bias in the workplace, every organisation has the opportunity to create a more engaged, diverse and inclusive workforce. By understanding the nuances of gender bias we can all take practical steps to prevent it from influencing hiring decisions and support a more gender-inclusive workplace for everyone.

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