Have you ever wondered whether you were overreacting to a situation at work and whether what you were experiencing was a result of gender bias? If so, you’re not alone.  “Is it just me?” is a question we’ve asked ourselves many times as women. In fact, according to one of our favorite books, The Glass Wall, this is a global phenomenon.

In workplaces across the world, the recurring questions of ‘Why did that happen?’, ‘Is it just me?’ and ‘Does that seem fair?’ play in the minds of women of all ages and roles.

The Glass Wall, by Sue Unerman & Kathryn Jacobs

We wrote this article because, although there’s a lot of advice on dealing with gender bias in the workplace, few resources are available to help women identify unconscious or implicit gender bias. Learning to detect gender bias is incredibly important for women in their early careers because it’s a phenomenon you’ll likely encounter throughout your career.

Most of the time, it’s difficult to determine whether gender bias is at play in the workplace. And it’s made especially challenging when, as children, women are often indoctrinated with societal expectations of what behavior is “appropriate” or “not appropriate” for girls.  In school, girls are often told to keep quiet, be friendly and polite, and adhere to prescribed norms and dress codes; it’s no wonder we can find it difficult to distinguish bias in the workplace – it can be a subtle and pervasive issue.

To detect gender bias, learn to: recognize common areas where gender bias shows up at work, examine your work environment for possible bias, and take charge by understanding critical workplace practices, including processes for promotions and salary increases.

Recognize common instances of gender bias.

There are some well-documented ways in which gender bias reveals itself in the workplace; learning to recognize them is the first step, and learning how to handle them is the second. We’ll cover the former in this article and the latter in the future. Here are some examples:

  • Being asked to take on the caretaking tasks in the office, i.e., overseeing birthdays, leaving parties, social outings, and related tasks that are not associated with your role, nor do they contribute to promotions. 
  • Your ideas – verbal or written – are being attributed to male colleagues.
  • Being talked over in meetings.
  • Requesting but not getting access to stretch assignments that lead to promotion.
  • Office relationships or bonds being formed around activities or topics perceived as male-dominated (i.e., golf, sporting events).

Examine your work environment for possible bias.

If you think that gender bias is at play, it’s important to understand whether this is a systemic issue. That is, is it happening across your organization? Or is this issue unique to your business unit, team, or supervisor? You’ll want to understand this before taking action, as your strategy will differ.  A systemic problem can be hard to change. Although a problem unique to your team or supervisor may seem hard to change, if the issue isn’t systemic, you may more easily find support and champions from across the organization, for example.  At this level, we’re talking about culture and how work is allocated and credited, not about systems for pay and promotion, which we’ll get to shortly.  Here are a few questions to explore to determine where the root of the problem lies:

  • How are assignments distributed? What percentage of vital work projects are assigned to men vs. women?
  • How are people included in critical meetings? If there are recurring ‘closed door’ meetings, are they inclusive? 
  • Is the assignment or situation you’re facing commonplace, or is the work an exception for male colleagues?
  • Are individuals – male and female – being credited for their work or for the ideas they bring to the work?
  • Are there ways to connect with senior colleagues that are not biased toward male-dominated topics?
  • Is there an active women’s employee resource group with an executive sponsor? 
  • Are there opportunities for men and women to access mentors?

Evaluate and understand the processes for awarding pay and promotion.

Transparency around the criteria for pay and promotion is an essential element of an inclusive work culture. This is a critical issue for women in early careers because men are 25% more likely than women to be promoted from entry-level to first-level manager roles within the first 2-3 years of their careers (McKinsey, 2021 Women & the Workplace).  This phenomenon is called ‘the broken rung.’  And it is one of two leading pipeline problems impeding workplace gender parity (McKinsey, 2022 Women & the Workplace).

​​The ‘broken rung’ remains unfixed. For the eighth consecutive year, a broken rung at the first step up to manager is holding women back. For every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted (Exhibit 2). As a result, men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, and women can never catch up. There are simply too few women to promote to senior leadership positions.

2022 Women & the Workplace Report, McKinsey

Here are a few questions to guide you in seeking answers to how pay and promotion are allocated across your organization:

  • What are the performance review and feedback processes? Is performance review tied to promotion or pay increases? What aspects of performance review trigger promotion, pay increases, or bonuses? Who oversees your performance review? Who influences the review?
  • What is the process for seeking a promotion? What criteria are used for promotion? How are promotions ultimately decided, awarded, and announced? Who oversees promotions? Who influences the promotion decisions?
  • What is the process for allocating pay increases or bonuses? What criteria are used in determining a pay increase or bonus payment? How are pay increases & bonuses ultimately decided and awarded? Who oversees pay increases & bonuses? Who influences pay increases & bonuses?

The first step to dealing with gender bias in the workplace is knowing that it’s not just you. Importantly, if you determine that you are being discriminated against, remember that it is not you. The most important thing to do is to safeguard your well-being and confidence and surround yourself with people who can support you. Being aware of gender-biased situations, the wider work culture in which you’re working, and how promotions and pay increases are allocated will help you determine strategies to respond if you detect that you’re being discriminated against based on your gender, race, sexual orientation, or a combination of these factors.

Check back: Next week, we will share tips on how to deal with gender bias in the workplace.