The Unconscious Bias Women Have Against Women

Remember “boy toys” and “girl toys” in McDonald’s Happy Meals? Our brothers and cousins got zippy Hot Wheels cars, while we got creepy Barbie statues that didn’t move or actually even  look a whole lot like Barbie. Even as a baby feminist, I resented the gendered distinction.

Stereotypical boy and girl toys serve as tools for socialization: they teach kids how they’re expected to behave in society. Generally speaking, boys are encouraged to run around outside, take risks (by pretending to race cars, for example), or change their environment by building things or blowing them up. Meanwhile, girls’ activities focus on being pretty, becoming princesses, or taking care of other people – consoling baby dolls or making tiny pies in tiny ovens.

Countless studies have demonstrated that the ways kids are socialized continues to impact women as adults. Good-girl conditioning is how we learned to adopt the behaviors and attitudes expected of women. Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and well-being, sums it up, “Be nice. Be considerate of others. Don’t rock the boat. Be likable.”

All of this socialization is both the product and result of a system built to benefit the people who got Hot Wheels in their Happy Meal.

After generations of being in charge as the dominant power group, white men of privilege set up the structure of modern offices based on the needs and preferences of other men just like them – most of whom had wives raising the children and picking up the dry cleaning.

It’s a pattern that both makes it harder for women to be successful and has continued to elevate men into positions of power. Regardless of your gender, your subconscious is telling you about how a “leader” or “successful professional” is supposed to look and behave – like a dude. As much as we may try to be conscientious, we don’t actually have control over how our subconscious processes information.

Mortifying confession time: a friend recently asked if I knew a female attorney whose last name I recognized as a named partner at a major law firm. My immediate thought was, “I wonder whose wife or sister she is.” Nanoseconds later, I (out loud, to myself, by myself) whispered, “Nooooo,” with a look of horror on my face as I realized what I’d done.

I literally teach this stuff for a living. Worse yet, a ton of my work focuses specifically on helping female attorneys advance in their careers. If my unconscious bias kicked in, there’s no telling what’s going on in the heads of everyone who’s not thinking about these issues all the time. (By the way, she was the named partner.)

This pattern of unconscious bias against women has major consequences in how we’re treated at work. Unlike men, women are often evaluated on our achievements rather than our potential. This translates into hiring committees deciding that a female employee “needs more experience” before advancing in her career, while the dude in the cubicle next to her has “demonstrated leadership potential” and has “earned” the new role.

It gets worse. These challenges are particularly acute for women of color, who often face additional biases. Women of color are consistently shown to be more ambitious than their white peers but are more likely to feel stalled in their careers.  When a woman makes a mistake, it’s more likely to be noticed and remembered longer, but for a woman of color, she’s judged even more harshly for the error.

Much of the above results from the double bind women face – we need to demonstrate competence at work, but – unlike men – we also need to come across as likeable to be influential. Professional success often requires qualities that are traditionally associated with masculinity: decisiveness, confidence, competence. But for women to achieve influence they also need to be seen as sufficiently feminine or “warm”: trustworthy, friendly and likable.

When women aren’t warm, we’re often seen as b*tchy and difficult, but if we’re only seen as warm, we’re not taken seriously. A female professional once told me the last thing she ever wanted to be called at work is “nice”.

Warmth is an important tool to efficacy for women, but only in combination with competence. The double bind means it can be difficult to achieve both.

There are many ways to counteract this BS, but I’d like to be clear that we shouldn’t have to.

Take a peek at any listicle or “women’s empowerment” lit and you’ll likely notice the unsettling subtext that women’s challenges in the workplace are our own fault. Many operate under the assumption that the issues of bias and gender inequality are ours to fix by “leaning in” and asking for more. That’s a seriously reductive view. These are systemic issues that need be addressed through a multi-pronged, long-term approach – one that includes men.

However, we have to operate within the system as it exists today while, if we choose to, trying to change it. That means recognizing the ways that bias and discrimination impact women in the workplace, rather than internalizing it.

This can be hard work, particularly since we can’t choose the way the system treats us in the short term. However, we can choose how we respond. Since effecting social change isn’t exactly an overnight endeavor, dealing with it requires awareness and a heavy dose of moxie.

Lelia Gowland works with women who want to increase their leadership capacity, impact, and career fulfillment. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer on workplace dynamics. Follow her on Twitter.

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