Does your workplace have an anti-gender-discrimination policy? I bet it does. And yet, all you have to do is look around most companies, most government bodies, most boards, and most venture capital firms to know for sure that women have not yet achieved equality in the workplace.
The current outcry about workplace sexual harassment is only one symptom of a much deeper problem--the fact that, nearly 100 years after women successfully fought for the right to vote, both women and men still don't quite see women as equals. Even if we believe that we should, and even if we believe that we do. There's profound bias in the way we see each other and ourselves that's all the more powerful for being mostly unconscious. I was raised by progressive parents in New York City in the heyday of the women's movement and still, that unconscious bias is in me. It's in all of us.
Consider the following assumptions, and ask yourself--honestly--how many may be lurking unnoticed in the back of your brain:
1. Men can "fake it till they make it." Women can't.
Many HR experts have made the same observation: A woman will apply for a job if she has all the stated qualifications, whereas a man will go after that same job if he has only some of them. This is generally seen as proof that women are less confident than men, and I agree that it is. But that's not all it is.
Imagine for one moment a young man saying confidently, "I am a natural born leader." Now try to picture a young woman saying the same thing in the same way. Chances are, you find the woman harder to imagine, and if you can imagine it, you're less likely to believe her. I believe women only seek jobs we absolutely know we're qualified for because we expect to have to prove ourselves, while men expect that they'll get the benefit of the doubt.
2. What men say is worth listening to.
Which gender talks most? A recent study shows that women tend to talk more when we're trying to collaborate but that in other situations there's no difference. And yet, a lot of people instinctively believe that women are more talkative--picture a "chatterbox" and you probably aren't visualizing a man.
It matters because when men speak, people are more likely to listen. Nearly a decade after Rebecca Solnit first published the essay that gave birth to the word "mansplaining," there's still a presumption that what men say is simply more likely to be important. That's the best explanation for the widely noted phenomenon that a woman will propose an idea in a meeting, it will get no response, and then a man will propose the same idea and it will be adopted. This is a particularly dangerous unconscious bias because if all of us come out of that meeting remembering that it was the man who had the brilliant idea for solving a problem, that reinforces a few more unconscious biases: that men are more creative, smarter, and better leaders.
3. When it comes to women, looks matter more.
The idea that--whatever else women accomplish--we must do our best to look attractive is so deeply ingrained that it's hard for most of us to escape it no matter how successful we become. If you're not sure what I mean, do an image search for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg next to Mark Zuckerberg. Or Sandberg next to her late husband Peter Goldberg. Or gorgeous Suzanne Pleshette playing goofy-looking Bob Newhart's wife on the old Bob Newhart Show, an oddity no one found noteworthy, since TV Bob had a good career. If you're a woman, no matter how successful you are, you likely still feel inferior for being overweight, or flat-chested, or wrinkled, or having the wrong hair. This is a particularly awful unconscious bias because it results in half the population feeling inferior and also spending untold amounts of money, energy, and time on our looks. Which then feeds the unconscious bias that women are vain and frivolous and not to be taken seriously.
It's a vicious cycle that's incredibly hard to break. Sandberg and Zuckerberg could do the world a lot of good if they started showing up to events and interviews with him impeccably dressed in a suit and her wearing no makeup and a hoodie. Maybe someday.