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When Erin Schreiner settled in at her desk one morning, she was not so warmly greeted by what awaited her: a sea of angry messages and a voicemail from a disgruntled customer. Shreiner decided to wait until later in the day to contact that customer.
As a lead writer for Atlanta-based ContentPark, she already had under her belt enough leadership and customer-interaction experience to know how to manage confrontations. “I didn’t want to be a punching bag,” Schreiner told me. “I knew I would take more blows if I called her back while she was still fuming.”
But that action created a misperception: Later in the day, Schreiner overheard her male assistant suggest to another male employee that she, Shreiner, was simply too scared to face this confrontation. Why? Because she is a woman.
As it turned out,the writer’s rational decision to hold off on responding to the customer was the right one — the customer had had time to calm down and both parties to the call reached a mutually beneficial agreement.
Unfortunately, however, that assistant’s notion that females are less competent in handling confrontation reflected how bias against women in the workplace is still an ongoing issue. What’s more, this stereotype of female incompetence continues to be perpetuated throughout the workforce.
Here are four scenarios that illustrate how men and women contribute to this issue of gender bias:
1. Thinking there’s not enough room at the top
Breaking through the glass ceiling can sometimes create a spirit of camaraderie among female professionals. However, Irina Lunina’s experience working on Wall Street presents a different story.
Sometimes, when women become leaders, they feel threatened by other women because they think those other women might take their job. When Lunina was hired at a large investment firm, she told me, she quickly realized that her accomplishments would always be fogged by her female colleagues’ mistrust in her performance.
In one instance, for example, Lunina’s client went behind her back to ask for a revised appraisal. This led to Lunina’s female superior reassigning the client and accusing Lunina of lacking the ability to lead the account. That caused some hurt and anger.
“I was always a leader,” said Lunina, who now works as an entrepreneur within the fintech and blockchain industries. “I still brought the company large contracts and tremendous amounts of revenue, but the more success I had, the more focus was put on my mistakes. We [she and the company] parted ways; but to replace the amount of revenue I brought in, they had to hire four people.”
Tip: Realize it’s possible for a woman, in fact for multiple women, to be successful in the workforce. When females grow in their profession, celebrate their accomplishments; don’t hold them back.
2. Giving women “chances”
People often like to think they aren’t gender biased, because they’re giving women a chance and hiring them. However, when female employees make their first mistake, they’re judged as incompetent, reinforcing the stereotype that women can’t do the job.
Christina Noren, the chief product officer at Interana in Redwood City, Calif., said she has seen this firsthand throughout her career. “Men are allowed to make mistakes without it being generalized to think they are incompetent,” she said. “Women are not. We see this at all levels.
“For example, young females on project-management teams lose all support with a typical rookie mistake, whereas males are given a pass for the same mistake.”
This extends even to the executive level. When employers remove female executives, they adopt a toxic mindset, assuming that because a woman didn’t work out, their next hire must be a male.
Tip: Make a clear rubric to assess performance, while actively asking, “What would I think if a man did this?” Reflecting in this way can promote a fair and balanced perspective on performance.
3. Encouraging women to act more “like men”
As an inspirational speaker, author of the new book You, Disrupted, and Denver-based CEO Todd Mitchem has coached several leaders — both men and women — on the idea of personal ownership.
One of his clients was a top female leader at a billion-dollar company. She needed help improving her empathy, kindness and thoughtful communication in the workplace. “With a group of people, her energy and kindness shined through,” Mitchem said. “But when she engaged with her team, the kindness and compassion was replaced by a harsh communicator.”
When women leaders think they need to be more like a man to succeed, that mindset can actually end up hurting them and making them seem like a cold leader. This can reinforce the stereotype that female leaders are heartless and mean.
After a few coaching sessions, however, said Mitchem, his client focused on her personal strengths and implemented a more balanced approach to how she led. “I stressed that she needed to be the compassionate woman she was, the mother and friend, while still being a professional and tough when needed,” he said.
“There is no reason for women to be like men. Women tend to possess a more empathetic mindset that is dire to a team’s success. They are dynamic and should honor themselves for their uniqueness.”
Tip: Women should play to their individual strengths and find a balance in how they lead. Most importantly, they need to stay true to their authentic selves and refrain from forcing an overly serious tone when leading their staff.
4. Assuming women are fragile
Many professional females are being denied a chance for growth. In fact, as a 2016 study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found, women are 20 percent less likely to receive negative feedback than men.
Even more startling is the fact that 43 percent of managers in the survey said they hesitate to give feedback to women because they are concerned about hurting their feelings. Only 35 percent of managers said the same about men.
If women aren’t made aware of their shortcomings at work, they can’t make corrections to improve. This can stunt their development and prevent them from moving up in their career.
Tip: Using an employee review tool like Fairygodboss can help women determine if they’ll be working for a company that provides women with the feedback they desire. These women-powered reviews provide important information on compensation, work flexibility, benefits and company culture.