By Kelly McGrail
Can ignoring gender bias make it go away? Of course not.
But I do wonder whether the specter of gender bias is creating self-limiting stories for a generation of women entering the workforce. This question was inspired by a recent visit to the campus of one of our nation’s most respected universities. While there, I had a chance to meet with about a dozen young graduate and undergraduate women. Their CVs were incredibly impressive. But when talking about their plans to join the workforce, rather than expressing excitement about future possibilities their questions were overwhelmingly weighted toward managing gender bias. Admittedly, this was a women-only discussion, and maybe it felt like a safer space to air their concerns versus similar discussions they had with businessmen. Regardless, it was clear the stories they had internalized led them to expect gender discrimination in the workplace.
These young women were assuming it would be hard to have their voices heard in meetings. They wondered if their ideas would be taken seriously. They worried about being denied opportunities afforded their male counterparts. They had the distinct impression bad things were going to happen at work because they were women…and it broke my heart.
Frankly, I was never exactly in their shoes. I went to a strong school, but not an Ivy League university, and while I made good grades, compared to the academic commitment and accomplishments of these young women, I would’ve looked like a slacker. But I think I had an advantage when entering the workforce. Why? Because I didn’t go into my first job (or any job) expecting to fight my way through a discriminatory environment. Was I ignorant of workforce challenges? Impossibly naive? No doubt. But, I was also unfettered by the worry that I would be at a disadvantage as a woman and it, therefore, had no power over me.
It is good that we’re more transparent about gender bias in the workplace; it’s a critical step toward eradicating it. But an unintended consequence of this new level of openness and discussion may be that some young women are entering the workforce with fear and trepidation – instead of with gusto and optimism.
Ignoring gender bias in the workplace isn’t the answer. When we find it, we must confront it. But how do we take away its power to intimidate before it even manifests? Young women should enter their careers with the full expectation of gender parity and equality. We want them to be confident they’ll be heard, counted and valued. We want them to see differences in the workplace — any difference, gender or otherwise — as an asset, not a burden to bear.
The Advantage of Differences
What I appreciate about the environment at Mars is a spirit of recognizing — and valuing — differences between people. All Mars Associates (we don’t use the term employees) are encouraged to share ideas, voice opinions and embrace diversity. We focus on self-awareness of strengths, empathy and the ability to collaborate with diverse people…man, woman, blue, purple…it doesn’t matter. Bringing people with different skills and perspective together, encouraging open conversations around the value these difference bring and, ultimately, by celebrating how it enriches our work is a good defense against any kind of bias.
For example, my colleague and I were charged with rolling out our company’s five-year strategic plan on behalf of the executive team. Her background is in strategy development and deployment. My background is in communications and engagement. We collaborated, learned from each other and supported one another – particularly when we hit bumps in the road. The differences in our styles and backgrounds helped us when aligning stakeholders that were equally diverse, including the c-suite team. Together, we cascaded and deployed a plan that excited and motivated our organization, and which we’re tracking and delivering with discipline. We brought our unique skill sets to bear to accomplish more than either of us could have done on our own.
I have another colleague whose brain is wired completely differently from mine (not just because he’s male). When I have a sticky problem, I often bounce it off of him because I know he’ll look at the problem from a different angle. Even when we disagree, his input helps me avoid being blindsided because I didn’t consider this alternative point of view. I can do the same thing for him.
These are the kinds of workplace anecdotes I wish the young women at that Ivy League school were hearing.
Telling a New Set of Stories
To help dispel the specter of gender bias, there’s an opportunity for all of us to tell the positive stories — loudly and often. The stories where women of character and strong work ethic are doing rewarding and important work. And — this is key — the stories of how these women had female and male collaborators and supporters on their journey.
We can’t rely on the tales of exceptionalism that make headlines– the Supreme Court Justice, the media mogul, the CEO. While these outstanding women are role models, and their careers an inspiration, it’s equally important to celebrate the everyday successes of women across the workforce who aren’t in the limelight. All of these victories work to chip away at the old biases, revealing a gender-neutral opportunity to succeed.
Each of us has the chance to share stories of development, learning, setbacks, failures and resilience. We can tell these stories on college campuses, in high schools, in the workplace, and at home with our daughters, granddaughters and nieces … and our sons, grandsons and nephews. We have the chance to rewrite the narrative that shapes how young women andyoung men think about the workplace.
We aren’t ignoring gender bias, or the part it has played in women feeling undervalued in the workplace. Instead, we’re cutting the legs from beneath this inequality by resetting expectations of the next generation — so that young women can run headlong into their future, confident that the workplace welcomes them and the difference they will make.
Kelly McGrail is Vice President, Strategic Business Communications, Mars Inc.