What Gender Bias Sounds Like: “You Are Our #1 Female Leader”

Posted on Posted in Gender Parity, Inclusivity

By Kelly Watson

When I was a teenager, I wanted a job in a factory. Girls my age babysat, but the guys I knew made way more money loading crates and stacking boxes. When I inquired about such a job, I was told I could not be hired. Why? Because there were no female restrooms on the factory floor.

When bicycles were invented in the 1800s, women were encouraged not to ride them because the contraptions were viewed as “un-feminine.” Besides, women, it was widely argued, did not have the strength necessary for such exertions.

And up until 1972, women were barred from running in competitive marathons. The Boston marathon directors rejected applications from women on the grounds that long-distance running would have ill effects on female health.

It is easy to look back at our history and laugh. Folks were foolish enough to believe that women could not run, bike, or work alongside men. In many ways, we have, indeed, come a long way, baby.

And yet, look around, and much of today’s workplace is still dripping with assumptions about what women can and cannot do.

What is worse is that often, when we try to fix such problems—when we try to pepper the workplace with mommy-friendly initiatives or programs to take advantage of supposedly women-specific genetic traits —we unwittingly make things worse:

  • Companies advertise great maternity leave programs and “flex-time” for working moms. They intend to offer these incentives to attract and support women. But, in reality, such initiatives merely reinforce the assumption that women will be the primary caregivers in their homes, or that because they have children, women will wish to step back from the work force and work from home.
  • We shower women with compliments. We marvel at how the working moms in our offices “do it all”, how they are more “relational” and “organized” – and reinforce the idea that women are better at touchy-feely, task-oriented (and coincidentally, lower-paid) roles. Or worse, we use stereotypical gender traits as a reason not to hire or promote – “She is too emotional.”  “She over-communicates.”  “She is not strategic enough.”
  • We offer “women’s leadership courses” to try to support and encourage female leaders, but even by offering such courses, we are suggesting the women – and not men – are the ones who need to be taught to lead.

The good news is that much of what ails us can come from some simple reframing:

  • Companies can stop offering maternity leave — which assumes that a woman will be the primary caregiver — and begin offering leave to all parents of all genders at any point when such a break from work is necessary. Why limit acceptable leave-taking to the first six weeks after a baby is born? A true family-friendly work environment would support family decisions at all stages of development: for a man to dial back from work and play a larger role at home when a teenage daughter or son is going through a difficult time; for anyone to spend time away with a chronically ill parent.
  • Organizations can stop using gender stereotypes when determining who gets hired and promoted. Job application language, recruiting targets, and promotional criteria need to be re-considered. We need to stop inadvertently steering women to “pink-collar” jobs and men into leadership.  We also need to open our minds to the idea that skills are not determined by gender.
  • Rather than singling women out for gender-based achievement – “You are our #1 female leader.” “She is a female engineer.” “That woman is the office mom.”,— let’s practice eliminating gender from our compliments. “You are our #1 leader.”  “She is an engineer.”  “That woman takes on many different roles around here.”

Let’s take a lesson from our runners, bikers, and factory workers. Let’s support workplaces where both genders are afforded the opportunity for flexibility, support and leadership development and put everyone on equal footing for success.


At Orange Grove Consulting, we help companies have the difficult conversations about gender bias. Review our workshop on Gender Bias Training for Men and Women, Together or consider a Gender Audit to see where gender inequity lies. Please email Celina Guerrero, Director, Business Development at celina@orangegroveconsulting.com for more information.

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