6 ways to break the bias and help women find success at work

Mar 10, 2022

I grew up in the ’80s, a time of big hair, power suits, and ‘Working Girl’. Where women were independent and ambitious.

I believed women had always been successful at work — and anything I wanted to achieve in my career was possible.

Yet when I entered the workforce (big hair still in tow!), my experience was somewhat different.

I discovered workplaces built on traditional systems where men held the power. The corporate environments I worked in encouraged healthy competition and rewarded high performance. As I watched the women around me fit themselves into these systems, I followed their example.

From my 20’s the message was clear: As a woman, I had to be confident, competitive, even aggressive to ‘be successful’.

The next two decades were a time of organisational change. Companies started to shift these systems to support women’s interests. The push for equal pay, diversity, more women on boards and in senior leadership.

Having spent the past 14 years supporting people in their careers, I’m in awe of how far we’ve come. Still, I also recognise how far we have to go to eliminate bias, all forms of stereotypes and discrimination, globally.

Awareness is an important first step because a lot of the bias which exists in the workplace is unconscious. But breaking down these barriers and creating change requires action.

The individual actions you take have the power to spark change on a collective level. Look no further than everything happening in the world right now and in the past two years. We’ve witnessed how the steps we each take can impact others — and shift society as a whole.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share some examples of the bias impacting women in today’s work environment. My intention is to bring them to your attention and show you how to contribute to this change.

Because I know change begins at an individual level.

Discover the biggest blocks getting in the way of women’s success at work. You’ll walk away with practical steps you can take as an individual or leader to remove bias in your career, team or workplace.

#1 — ‘FACE-TIME’ CULTURE

One barrier which exists in organisations is the concept of ‘face-time’. Associating productivity and performance with presence.

This ‘face-time culture’ is well known in professional services. I’ve experienced it coming from a background in corporate sales and advertising. I also observed it through my years of work in the legal industry.

Many companies and leaders value physical presence in the office. But if their people choose to work flexibly, they may miss out on pay-rises, promotions and progression. This has major consequences for the success of women in the workplace.

The switch to remote work was an opportunity to level the playing field. With all employees in the same situation, equality should be easier to achieve.

But employers and employees now agree hybrid work is best — and this looks different to each person. According to The Economist, twice as many men say remote work has positively impacted their careers. Women prefer less time in the office and a greater number would leave if required to return full-time.

Remote work creates an extra barrier. It limits your ability to influence, build relationships and network. As workers return to the office, choosing flexibility could compromise your career progression.

Cultural change needs to come from the top — by linking recognition and rewards to results, not presence. And this starts one person and team at a time.

As a leader, set specific, measurable targets aligned to performance objectives. Then make pay and promotion decisions for your team based on results.

Does your organisation expect everyone in the office on particular days or a set number of days per week? Lead by example and work from home on the days you don’t need to be in. To break down the bias, you could suggest your team works remotely on set days too.

#2 — THE BATTLE BETWEEN BALANCE + BURNOUT

The culture of overwork and burnout which exists in the corporate world affects women more than men. With the constant struggle to balance personal lives with work, many women choose to put their careers on hold. Or they feel the impacts on their health and wellbeing.

This was particularly evident during the pandemic. Studies show men enjoyed the flexibility of remote work during this period. Meanwhile, women took on the extra load of childcare and domestic duties.

A report by McKinsey and Lean In revealed women are more burnt out than men as a result of the pandemic. A third of women surveyed considered taking a step back in their career — or leaving the workforce altogether. This is an increase from one in four pre-COVID.

The real problem here isn’t flexibility, with most employers now offering it. It’s the blurring of lines between work and home life. When you’re always being ‘on’, you never completely switch off from work.

Countless times, I’ve seen women working full-time but paid for 3-4 days. This looks like employing someone part-time — yet expecting them to be ‘on call’ every day. Or workers doing significant overtime to keep on top of their workload.

So what’s the answer? Setting boundaries.

I always say you can’t control external circumstances — only your own response, choices and actions. At an individual level, you need to focus on what you can control — your own time. By putting boundaries in place, communicating them to others and holding yourself accountable.

For leaders, let go of unrealistic expectations, monitor workflow and check in on team capacity levels. Also, keep an eye on their wellbeing and look out for signs of burnout. Set an example for your team by sticking to your own boundaries — and positively reinforcing those who do too!

#3 — BIAS WHEN HIRING

In recent times, a lot of the emphasis has been on equality when hiring. While there’s been plenty of progress, there’s still work to do. Throughout my former recruitment career, I observed plenty of unconscious bias.

Hiring managers discounting candidates because of their cultural background, experience or career breaks. A lack of openness to female candidates seeking part-time or flexible hours. Or on occasion, asking women if they had or were planning to have children in an interview.

While this is changing, hiring managers need to stay open-minded and watch for bias. Ongoing education is important. Leaders can remind their teams on what to be aware of during shortlisting and interviews.

If you’re applying for a job, keep your CV short (to 2-3 pages) and focus on your recent experience (the past 5-7 years). Explain any gaps or leave them off if appropriate — say, six months maternity leave during a five year tenure. Outline your requirements at interview, so you can respond to any concerns in person.

#4 — BARRIERS TO PROGRESSION

Greater equality when hiring is critical — and so is the development and advancement of existing female employees. In a recent article on ‘The Great Resignation’, I shared the importance of developing and retaining your best people.

There’s been a lot of awareness about the need to promote more women into leadership. Gender and diversity targets are a great start. But we need to address the real reasons women aren’t paid or promoted at the same rates as their male colleagues.

Over the years, I’ve observed two very different approaches to job applications. Men are more likely to throw their hat in the ring for a potential role, even if they meet only two of the five key criteria. Meanwhile, women tend to focus on the 5% gap in their experience and some won’t even apply if they don’t tick every box!

Compared to their male counterparts, women are also less likely to ask for a pay-rise, promotion or negotiate the terms of a new job offer. The majority of men state what they want, while many women are afraid to ask! While there are exceptions, this is a big reason for the major discrepancies in pay and level.

Another block to progression for many women is their own choices. They want flexibility — and to be successful at work — but feel they must sacrifice their careers to get it. It breaks my heart when I see driven, educated working mothers put their careers on hold.

They believe they ‘have to’ wait until their kids are at school full-time before even thinking about what they want next. So they avoid asking for a pay rise, promotion, applying for a job or changing careers for years. And time again, I see them wait until they’re so unhappy or burnt out, they have no choice but to make a drastic change.

This isn’t true. If you want to make a change in your career, take responsibility and start small. Taking tiny, incremental steps over time will keep you motivated and get you to where you want to be, faster.

For leaders, regularly ask your female employees about their career objectives. Explain how you can support them to reach their goals and connect them to female mentors. Help them create a realistic career plan and hold them accountable.

#5 — GIRL, INTERRUPTED

Women and people of colour in senior leadership face greater bias, with less diversity at the top. Studies show women are often interrupted, called ’emotional’ or have their judgement questioned. In contrast, men rarely experience this, especially at senior stages of their careers.

The Economist reported a third of women in the technology sector being interrupted or ignored in virtual meetings. Despite the lack of diversity in leadership, this response isn’t only coming from men. Women are often the biggest critics of one another.

Because a lot of this bias is unconscious, the first step is awareness. Both men and women can start with self-awareness — and make an effort to support female colleagues.

If you notice this behaviour in others, let them know it’s not acceptable. And if you experience it, speak up and call it out!

#6 — WOMEN SUPPORTING WOMEN

Bias also shows up in how women mentor and support each other. As women in the workplace, we can be our own worst enemies and the first to criticise or compete with one another.

I’ve worked in roles and industries like sales and professional services, where men held the majority of leadership. In the ‘noughties’ corporate world, women still felt they had to compete to ‘be successful’. As an ambitious high-achiever with a lot to prove, I noticed this in the female leaders above me — and did the same.

Promoted to my first management role in my mid 20’s, I hadn’t yet developed the emotional maturity to effectively lead others. I was overly competitive, had high expectations for myself and my team and looking back, wasn’t easy to work with! But I also faced challenging situations and criticism from other female colleagues.⠀

There was simply a lack of collaboration and support for one another.

Thankfully, this seems to be shifting. Reports reveal women leaders invest more time into mentoring other women. They also promote flexibility in their teams and support diversity in recruitment.

But these steps take extra time and energy, which is not always noticed or valued by employers. Organisations need to recognise and reward their efforts — or risk losing the positive steps taken to improve diversity.

So there you have it. The six biggest barriers holding women back and how to break through the bias. My hope is these ideas will help you contribute to change and support the success of women at work.

Need help to clarify what you want at work and foster the confidence to create the success you desire?

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Stacey Back is a Career Strategist, Leadership Coach + Founder of Profile Careers. She helps high-achieving corporate leaders and business owners at a mid-career crossroads find the work that lights them up, increase their income, impact and create a career + life on their terms.

Stacey also supports professionals to transition from their corporate job into their own consulting business. She works virtually with individuals and organisations based across the globe.