Do You Have a Gender Bias? A Litmus Test for Women

Something is driving me crazy. Despite my work with leaders and their organizations and the particular challenges women leaders face, despite being a female who has been on the receiving end of gender bias, I have it too. I hate that.

Say the word “nurse”, and I’ll probably think woman. Say the word “mechanic” and I’ll probably think man. Okay, so I can live with this. I know it. I see it. It’s what I don’t see that worries me and its impact on my business leadership. Are you ready for your litmus test?

Can you negotiate better on behalf of others than for yourself?  There. I’ve said it.

And if that resonated a loud and clear “of course,” if that clicked in your gut without you needing to explore a thousand variations on where this might or might not apply, you have just seen your own bias.

I can be a ferocious negotiator on behalf of others.  It’s a lot more work to do that on my own behalf. Certainly, there are men for whom this is true, too, but in general, it is much more true of women whose acculturation places such a high value on being liked and where being powerful can throw everyone, male and female, in a tizzy.

If you’d like to become more aware of your bias and learn how to reduce its impact, consider the book Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What they Really Want by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Their negotiation prep worksheet helps you transform new insight into action with sections such as “Decide What You Want”; “Factor in Fairness”; “Do Your Homework”; “Make Strategic Decisions”; “Choose Your Tactics”; “Get Ready”; and “Stay Calm and Close the Deal.”

The section titled “Factor in Fairness” ought to really get your attention! It has questions that ring like a clear bell (or the blare of an 18-wheeler truck horn) calling your attention to whether you are advocating on your own behalf or are subject to bias—your own or others’.  “Are you being paid what you’re worth?” “Does your title describe your level of responsibility and authority?” “Are you doing more than your share of the household chores?”

While I know that bias exists, sometimes it’s hard to prove definitively. I’ve found myself in the position of trying to persuade people of its reality, people who simply have never experienced it or are unaware that it exists. And I, too, can second-guess myself about whether I’ve really just experienced it. No surprise (the litmus test!) that I never second-guess another female executive’s experience.  That’s why it was so refreshing to come across a fascinating article that talks about neurobiologist Ben Barres, who had been a woman and is now a man.  He confirms that he receives more respect as a man and has heard such jaw-dropping comments as “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.” What?!

If you have a bias, stay vigilant. It’s not a quick or simple fix because it’s a societal norm and one you inherited. Engage with others who are practicing advocacy on their own behalf but for heaven’s sake don’t tip into male-bashing vigilantism. It’s is a misuse of power, unkind and understandably perpetuates an ugly stereotype.  (Babcock and Laschever advise being “relentlessly pleasant” to avoid triggering a like bias from both men and women.) Take your calculated risks. Sometimes it’s not even the near-term “win” that’s the most rewarding. It’s that we dare, which gives us wings to win even bigger.


U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

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