If we really want to get rid of gender bias in the workplace, Joan C. Williams has a refreshing answer: It's not the employees that need to change. It's the business processes.
Yep. You can forget about sensitivity training and what can seem, at times, like a forced march towards political correctness. Instead Williams, who is the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law and the author of an article in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, advises that you simply look for instances of bias at your company, and find the metrics to measure them. Then put a so-called "bias interrupter" in place, measure, and repeat.
Wait, a bias interrupter? Yes, this is a somewhat new concept, but a fairly simple one. A bias interrupter, writes Williams, is a small change in a business process that affects the thinking of everyone involved. Williams cites a study in which researchers posted two job openings for administrative assistants in the sports industry. One version of the job announcement said nothing about salary. The other said "salary negotiable." Including the two words "salary negotiable" resulted in equal numbers of men and women trying to negotiate their salaries (generally, it’s thought that men are more likely to negotiate), and closed the pay gap between men and women for that particular job by 45 percent.
Two words. Cheap. Easy.
So, do you need a bias interrupter? And how do you design one?
Well, to determine if you need one, Williams suggests that you watch for instances of any of the following four forms of bias at your company. If you fail to find any of these, you may be off the hook. Or you may be in denial: The percentage of companies reporting at least one of these forms of discrimination, and the percentages of women who say they experience them, are pretty high.
1. Prove it again!
Do women have to provide more evidence than men to be considered equally capable? Williams and Erika Hall, a professor at Emory's Goizueta Business School, interviewed 127 women for their book What Works for Women at Work, and two-thirds of them said they had prove-it-again problems.
Often, females are judged either too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likable. It seems that Lassie is the one and only exception, and chances are, she's not heading up your sales team. A sign of a woman being considered "too feminine" is the consistent assignment to her of so-called "office housework"--organizing parties, taking notes, cleaning up messes both literal and figurative, and generally being deluged with undervalued tasks. Yet women who refuse these tasks are slammed with being "not a team player." Who's doing the dirty work at your company?
3. Maternal wall
Plenty of research has found that moms are less likely to be hired and promoted than either men or women without children, are offered less in salary, and are held to higher performance and punctuality standards. (I swear, at some companies, coming back from maternity leave is practically a form of hazing.) And yes, there are a small group of moms who are considered "indisputably competent and committed." They're seen as bad mothers and bad people.
You'll also hear this referred to as Queen Bee syndrome. Women who are discriminated against early in their careers are often reluctant to help other women professionally; they'll tend to align with men to get the benefits that come with being seen as one of the boys. Claiming that there is no sexism at a company becomes seen as a sign of loyalty.
So how do you interrupt these patterns? Here are some of Williams' suggestions.
1. Examine the language of your job ads
You want your job advertisements to steer clear of language known to be off-putting to women, such as "competitive," "aggressive," or "ambitious." If you want someone who’s going to be able to grow into a promotion in 18 months, just say it. Likewise if you need someone to bring in new accounts. To a lot of women, saying you need to hire someone competitive, ambitious, and aggressive hints that you're employing a bunch of testosterone-fueled Neanderthals, which does not sound like a positive work environment.
2. Make sure equally capable men and women get equally promising assignments.
One huge problem in finance is that the women are channeled into fields with lower revenue potential. "These firms develop mathematical models for all sorts of other things," writes Louise Roth in her study of high finance, "so why not dividing work evenly?"
3. If you ask women to brag, let them know you're sincere
At Google, Williams writes, the company found that women were getting promoted less often at least partly because the company’s process requires people to nominate themselves for promotions--and women are less likely to call attention to their accomplishments. Any system that requires people to brag is going to "push women out onto the tightrope," writes Williams, requiring some sort of adjustment to get everyone to brag pretty much equally. Google changed its process to include women in workshops about how and when to self-promote, and ended up with many more self-nominations from women.
4. Screen performance evaluations
Another company removed identifying information from performance evaluations and read them aloud, asking staffers to be alert to sexist uses of language. The meetings were preceded by information stating that the company was trying to improve its performance evaluations, and introducing employees to the four pervasive types of bias. Ernst & Young, notes Williams, has long had outsiders read their performance evaluations, to make sure that equally-rated players are equally rewarded.
The first assignment for any company, though, is simply to find out if there is bias, and if so, what type. For that, you're going to need to talk to the women in your company. After all, they're going to be discussing these things--with or without you.