Late last fall, after a semester of classes, a young, white, male MBA student came to me and said, “So, I now realize just how badly women still experience gender discrimination, and it makes me really angry. But I have no idea how to stop it or what to do about it.” His words communicated a genuine desire to combat attitudes and treatment that for many women are all too familiar.
I would have been surprised by his comments had I not witnessed a similar reaction months earlier when interviewing seasoned executives who serve on the boards of large, publicly traded U.S. companies.
In both practice and research, we are doing a better job at bringing attention to the problem. But we haven’t established enough tangible suggestions for how to challenge it. One idea I’ve been exploring: Giving people clearer language to use in their day to day encounters with prejudice.
The Persistent Blind Spot to Gender Bias
I have been examining the effect of gender composition on the decision-making processes of corporate boards, as part of a research project with my coauthors — Dr. Tiffany Trzebiatowski and Dr. Courtney McCluney. After interviewing a couple dozen female executives, it became clear to my coauthors and me that female directors consistently experienced distinct barriers in the boardroom when they were the only woman, or one of just a few women, on the team.
When investigating this issue from the male point of view, we found a significant lack of awareness regarding these obstacles. Impediments include women having difficulties with nomination onto boards because they didn’t fit the typical mold — white, male, former CEO — or, once on the board, being excluded from decisions that happened on the golf course or in men’s executive lounges (yes, bathrooms).
As we recounted these examples to our male interviewees, we witnessed disbelief, shock, and disappointment. We saw real frustration at the realization that their female colleagues were routinely experiencing obstacles that they and their male colleagues were not.
And again, we heard the sentiment, “OK, this still exists and it’s worse than I thought it was. What can I do about it? I want to help fix it.”
‘Scripts’ Could Pave a Way Forward
Of course, the fact that gender discrimination is alive and well should not be surprising, especially given the attention that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have given to sexual harassment in the last nine months. However, in both practice and research, we have not moved past awareness of the issue to tangible recommendations on how to tackle it.
One exception might be the recommendation that women seek out sponsors. Sponsors go beyond mentors: Whereas mentorship involves providing advice and support, sponsorship involves advocating for a mentee and helping to position her for career-advancing opportunities. Sponsorship goes beyond providing feedback and is the active promotion of an individual. Research shows that women are much less likely than men to receive active sponsorship, which some argue might be an especially fruitful pathway to career advancement.
Mentorship and sponsorship, however, are strategies that take time to develop and enact effectively. What happens when we hear or see discriminatory behavior actually happening? How do we respond in the moment to an off-color comment? Or to a male colleague exhibiting a common unconscious display of dominance by speaking just a little bit longer and louder and drowning out the voice of his female colleague?
What are the words that will call attention to the issue, without sacrificing work relationships?
In my research, I have begun to investigate developing and testing the efficacy of what I call “scripts.” There is currently no established set of scripts to address gender discrimination — that is, a set of words or phrases that would signal to a peer that he has crossed a line, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Developing such scripts has the potential to short-circuit the automatic cognitive processing often responsible for the expression of gender bias in the workplace. A phrase as simple as: “Can you repeat what you just said?” when a biased remark is uttered or said as a joke can be a straightforward way to make someone aware that they’ve said something out of bounds. A response like, “That’s not cool,” or “That comment doesn’t reflect the person I know you to be” can bring a shot of level-headed interruption to an interaction, prompting the speaker to reconsider his perspective.
Scripts act as a pause button of sorts that enable us to reevaluate what was said or done, despite the initial surprise or shock of witnessing the biased behavior. They allow us to plan, in more deliberate ways, on how to push back respectfully and effectively.
Blind Spots, Egocentricity, and Confirmation Bias
In essence, scripts are a way to reduce the blind spots caused by occupying a majority position. To be clear, lack of awareness is not an inherently male problem. If women made up the majority in powerful, high-social-status positions and men comprised the minority in such positions, women would be likely to similarly fall into majority-favoring behavior that could become mostly automatic and unconscious. It’s how the human brain works — we prioritize what we are exposed to personally, and we have difficulty understanding the perspective of those who have different experiences than us. Psychologists call this an egocentric bias.
Another cognitive shortcoming that scripts could help address is the use of confirmation bias. Humans make decisions about people based on previous experiences and beliefs, and because people are generally exposed to more male leaders than female leaders, males are generally associated more with leadership positions than are women. But if men were to adopt scripts to disrupt this self-reinforcing cycle, more equal weight could be given to women’s voices in decision-making processes, leading to greater visibility, endorsement, and ultimately, promotion.
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Take the unconscious display of dominance I described earlier — the tendency of men in the workplace to speak a little bit longer and louder than women — or the similarly common tendency for men to interrupt women significantly more than other men. A simple phrase like “I believe Nancy was speaking — please let her finish” could short-circuit a peer’s biased behaviors. Indeed, given the threat of backlash effects that women experience when speaking up in response to this situation, the role of male colleagues — especially at the peer level — in expressing this script is particularly powerful.
Men’s Unique Role in Battling Gender Bias
In the workplace, in schools, and in society in general, biased comments and everyday power plays may seem small individually, but they are cumulatively significant.
Men, by virtue of their majority position, have a unique opportunity to directly combat gender discrimination. Women can also contribute by responding with ideas and feedback in support of their male colleagues’ attempts to right the process. Learning how to develop and enact scripts to disengage from the automaticity of our everyday interactions is ultimately a collaborative effort.