HR Management & Compliance

Unexpected Places for Gender Bias in the Workplace

Most employers would say they work to actively reduce or eliminate gender bias in their organization and strive to hire, pay, and promote based on merit. And most of them would probably be accurate in terms of what they’re trying to do. But there are several ways gender bias can creep into an organization in unexpected places.


Source: Artur Szczybylo / Shutterstock

Here are a few:

  • Job descriptions and posts may inadvertently use words that appeal more to one gender or another, creating a situation in which one gender is more likely to apply and thus more likely to get hired.
  • Making assumptions without asking—even with the best of intentions—can have a discriminatory impact. Some examples:
    • Assuming a new mother won’t want to take an assignment that requires travel may end up holding her back in her career—and that may not have been the choice she would have made.
    • Assuming that parents won’t want to take on roles or projects that require more overtime (but also may be high profile or result in greater advancement opportunities).
  • Be careful assigning miscellaneous tasks that are not part of an individual’s job description. For example, females are often asked to take on the responsibility of planning an office party or bringing refreshments. That not only is unfair but also can make the role seem less important in others’ eyes if it becomes the norm.
  • Make sure to plan networking activities that appeal to everyone; otherwise, you’ll likely have a lopsided turnout.

These are just some examples of how bias can creep into the workplace unintentionally. Fortunately, there are several ways we can combat this:

  • Consider implementing training to help people to identify their own subconscious and implicit biases that impact day-to-day interactions and decisions.
    • For example, if a hiring manager has biases that make him or her assume one gender will likely be better suited for a role, that will create an unfair situation in the hiring process. (Having implicit biases does not mean someone is seeking to act in a discriminatory way; almost everyone has unintended biases that have been shaped by our culture over our lifetime.)
  • Be aware of the roles that are often stereotyped—like party planning and bringing in food—and make a concerted effort to keep these situations fair.
  • Conduct assessments to see how well the organization is doing in terms of avoiding bias in hiring, promoting, giving raises, and assigning work projects. Assess the percentage of people who achieve these goals, and compare that with those who were eligible (as well as compare with the population at large) to see where the organization’s numbers fall short. Assess what problems may be occurring, and take steps accordingly.
  • Consider offering benefits that help combat bias and its related issues. For example, offering childcare benefits can offset issues that are faced with child-rearing. Offering financial literacy benefits can help offset the pay gaps often found in the workplace. Offer parental or personal leave to cover unexpected issues that are likely to affect one gender more than another.

What else has your organization done to uncover and reduce unintended gender bias in the workplace? What have your results been?

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

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