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Speak Up! Gender Bias in the Workplace

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Writing this was a wakeup call.

Following an empowering Inforum speaker series, I knew we were ready to rally sisters, #MeToo all over the city and talk about gender bias in the workplace. The feeling was fleeting. I started writing this with several sources ready to enrich me with news of the changes being put forth. I expected plenty of "You go, girl!"

The reality: We're not ready to talk on the record. Or we can't, due to policy, retribution or other factors. Not that we don't speak up; I've seen it, experienced it and done it. Now, let's take baby steps toward empowering others in the workplace.

Damn the Doubt!

Heidi Frye, President of UPwords Inc., mentioned this idea of "the spectrum." Women are doubt-oriented, toward left of the spectrum, while men are certainty-driven, toward the right—something communications, sociology, business and other researchers long ago dubbed The Confidence Gap. A 2014 article in The Atlantic summarized it succinctly: Evidence shows women are less self-assured than men; to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence.

Mind the gap. Ditch the doubt. Frye encourages the mantra "Honor yourself, while respecting others."

A friend of West Michigan Woman noted, "What people are often surprised to hear is that while men are an extremely important part of the gender bias conversation, we women found we also had gender bias against women. It's vital to educate ourselves—to recognize when we see gender bias happening around or to us and ensure we are aware of our own tendencies for bias."

Watch Your Mouth.

I don't mean swearing. When you were last asked to weigh in on a business conversation, did you say something like "I think we should"? Frye says to knock it off!

In female language, "I think" means "Let's move forward on this." In male language, it's "I have an opinion." Let's better advocate for ourselves by saying what we mean—not waiting for someone to interpret our message. What does the listener hear? Choke back "I think" or "I feel." Stand up for your idea by understanding the listener's perspective. Say "I know." Understanding how others process can help you communicate better, improve confidence and craft stronger messages.

Microaggression Much?

Microaggressions, defined by psychologist Derald Wing Sue as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership," generally happen below the awareness level of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. We do others a disservice when we convince ourselves "little things" aren't a big deal. As microaggressions can become much bigger, it's important to call them out when you see or experience them. Tell the individual how their comment or action was perceived, so they see it. One woman's workplace gives employees permission to point out statements that could be considered microaggressions, then have a positive discussion about it.

How Do We "Fix" All This?

Judy Welch, Michigan Women Forward executive director, West Michigan, offers some advice:

  • Drop the attitude: This is not "Us" versus "Them"—not even a little. We need to stop.
  • Be aware, be observant, be transparent. Listen. Be intentional about helping each other.
  • Find a male advocate—and don't be embarrassed to ask for help. We all need allies and assistance with navigating the power structure. Be specific and strategic. Surround yourself with people who support you.
  • Address your insecurities. Address your issues. Be a better teammate.
  • Change takes time. Sometimes you have to suck it up, show up and do the work.
  • Peel back the layers. Use empathy and perspective to build a more strategic reactive process.
  • Call people out. Speak up! If it's happening to them, it's happening to you. Correct it or expect it to happen to you next.
  • Keep dialog open. Talk about and share your experiences, so others don't feel alone. We learn best from each other.


Adrienne Wallace, Ph.D., is an enthusiastic communicator with extensive public and private sector experience. She is an integrated communications professional, a social-change leader, a Grand Rapids Westsider, wife to tech/PR geek Derek DeVries, and mother to rescue pups Walter and Rosie. Catch more of her rants at West Michigan Woman.


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