Gender bias is everywhere, and it’s up to us to fight it head-on

Does the gender of your employees affect the way you manage or give performance reviews?

The unfortunate reality is that, even in 2022, we are still fighting for gender equality throughout workplaces in regards to opportunities, promotions, and equal pay, among other issues. And in performance reviews, many women face the complicated obstacle of gendered feedback.

(We should note here that, when it comes to talking about gender-related bias, much of the dialogue excludes the experiences of trans women and non-binary people. It should also be noted that women of color also face steeper biases in the workplace, inside and outside of performance reviews. The intersectional identities of women in the workplace should be kept in mind as we continue to dive deeper into how gender bias manifests in the workplace.)

Women also report greater barriers to initiating mentorship relationships with superiors than men. In some cases, increased networking activities (e.g., increasing internal visibility within an organization) have even been shown to be negatively associated with women’s career success.

What is gendered feedback?

Gender stereotypes create an environment where men are expected to be competent and women are expected to be warm and friendly. So when supervisors or peers give feedback to women, they tend to fixate on their interpersonal warmth rather than their abilities or work performance.

Writing for Forbes, Dr. Pragya Agarwal notes that “women who . . . fit the gender stereotype of a woman as being gentle and caring are liked more but not considered as leadership material. On the other hand, women who display traditional ‘masculine’ qualities such as assertiveness, forcefulness, and ambition are labeled as . . . aggressive, and hence generally disliked.” So, ultimately, women are sometimes penalized for their behavior while men are praised for acting and working the same way.

What is gender essentialism?

Have you ever heard or read something along the lines of, boys are naturally better at math and science, whereas girls are naturally better at reading and writing?

This mode of thinking is called gender essentialism, and it refers to the societal assumptions of specific characteristics being inherent to gender. It can find its way into everything from baby onesies to the allocation of workplace tasks. The belief that men and women are inherently good at different things has been shown to be a significant barrier in achieving greater equity in the workplace and beyond.

In addition to creating a false dichotomy between what men and women are capable of, this kind of thinking operates under the assumption that gender is binary, which, as we’ve learned, isolates some colleagues and prevents them from bringing their best selves to work.

How to address gendered feedback

Tackling gender stereotypes on a cultural scale can often feel impossible, but, with diligence, an inclusive and empathetic approach, and support from your team, it’s entirely possible to make real, positive changes in how gender bias exists in your workplace. And if you’re in a leadership position, you have a responsibility to address bias and discrimination where you see it.

Here are some guidelines to stand by:

Question the logic.

Ask how it’s possible to know that someone’s particular trait is intrinsic. Chances are, there’s not going to be a real definitive answer as to whether something is biologically inherent or whether it’s the result of social conditioning and the ways notions of gender have been constructed by society.

Note the changes.

Make the point that gender essentialist beliefs have changed over time. In the 1940s, for example, men were perceived as equally as people-oriented as women, and today, women are overwhelmingly perceived as more people-oriented. If these supposedly fixed and inherent qualities can change over time, they’re not very fixed and inherent, right? It’s worth noting, too, that essentialist beliefs that rely on broad generalizations about gender break down pretty quickly in applying these same generalizations to trans or nonbinary individuals.

Promote potential.

When we make assumptions about what someone’s strengths and weaknesses are based on their gender, we limit possibilities and reduce potential. Give feedback based on work ethic and ability to perform the job. Award mentorship opportunities and promotions to workers who have earned them.

Leaders should also be sure to continually check for bias everywhere, even beyond gender. By combatting bias and aiming for a more inclusive workplace with equitable opportunities for everyone, not only will you be cultivating a better place to work, but diverse and inclusive teams are far likelier to perform better, innovate more, make faster informed decisions, and be overall more productive. Plus, you’ll attract and retain more talented people.

Looking for training resources that address bias, encourage bystander intervention, and use inclusive language that goes above and beyond the gender binary? Request a demo with Ethena’s team to learn more.