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Engage to create change: How to effectively confront gender bias in the workplace.

In our last newsletter, we offered you some new ways of describing the biases you see at work. When people get used to thinking about implicit and explicit bias, as well as glass ceilings and glass escalators, they start noticing expressions of bias and stereotyping in their everyday conversations. When this happens, women often feel caught between wanting to speak up to confront these biased comments and the worry that they don’t know ‘the right’ thing to say. What can you do if you find yourself in this conundrum?


Confronting bias in the workplace is hard. On top of the offense and psychological harm situations like these create, our colleagues who communicate bias might have more formal power or more social capital than we do, so the risks of speaking out loom large. We also might feel responsible for doing the right thing, which can create a sense of pressure that we ought to speak out. If you are a woman in a male-dominated workplace, these pressures can be intensified by the possibility that your male co-workers fail to even notice the bias that occurred.

Here is how we suggest you approach this situation:


1. Prepare ahead of time. Pick one or two phrases that you feel comfortable with and have those be your go-to for starting a confrontation. For example, you might ask “why would you say that?;” or, “do you really mean to communicate that [stereotype];” or you might be more direct and say, “hey that’s not ok with me, do you get why?”


For example, I noticed that my colleague Natasha often got upset when I talked about gender inequality in the workplace, so I resolved to address it with her. I prepared what I was going to say ahead of time: “Recently when we have discussed gender inequality you have seemed irritated or even a little angry. I can’t tell if it is about me or the topic or both, but either way, can you help me understand why?”

Why plan a go-to starting point? First, if we visualize ourselves taking an action ahead of time we are more likely to actually follow through. Second, given how jarring it can be to hear a biased comment at work, it helps to have a grounding, rehearsed phrase that will make us feel like ourselves in that moment. Third, preparing a statement lets you mark that you have a concern while avoiding labeling your co-worker in a way that escalates their defensiveness to unproductive levels.

2. Listen. Be brief, straightforward, and use questions. This approach gives your co-worker an opportunity to quickly step back from what they have said and apologize. If your co-worker does not apologize, but rather digs in, you have two options. You can either step away – which is totally understandable – or you can go further and listen. We don’t mean waiting for them to finish talking before you share your point of view. We mean fully exploring their point of view. Follow your go-to statement with open questions (i.e., those that start with how, why, why). Phrases like “Can you tell me why you feel this way?” and “Why is this issue important to you?”, or “How did you arrive at this view?” are helpful. Resist the urge to correct their views with data and facts because that invites them to do the same, which often creates an escalating debate over who has the best, right data. Whether women are as capable and deserving as men is not up for debate. Instead, step back and try to understand why your colleague clings to an outdated view of the world.


When you have explored their view, summarize what you have heard to check that you’ve understood them correctly. The idea here is to paraphrase what they have said, not to agree with them. Listening, of course, is hard to do when your values are challenged. But by listening, you build a norm for interacting that will encourage them to listen to you in return.


This is how I approached my conversation with Natasha. She was (unsurprisingly) defensive and she said a lot of things – some of which were irrelevant and seemed designed to blame me for her actions. Instead of reacting, I stayed neutral and encouraged her to talk by asking open questions. What I ultimately understood was that Natasha felt she had never experienced gender bias, so she concluded that other women hadn’t either and were just playing the “victim card” to get ahead. This is how I summarized it to Natasha and she agreed.

3. Re-frame gender bias around values before introducing data. Now that you’ve really listened to your co-worker, you hopefully understand their values. This is essential if you ever want to change their point of view. When we try to convince other people of our ideas, we often frame our arguments through the lens of our own values. But when people don’t share our values, they won’t be convinced by arguments built on them.


It is helpful to surface their underlying values and explore any areas of agreement you share before arguing the facts. You might begin by explicitly acknowledging the overlap in your values – “Well, I certainly think that organizations should be meritocratic, and it sounds like you agree with me?” Then you can move to challenge that value. But rather than presenting facts and figures and telling your co-worker what they mean, it may be more helpful to ask them how they understand the data through the lens of their values.


In my conversation with Natasha, I realized that she valued experiences more than data. In her view, women like her - high achieving and well-educated - no longer experience gender bias. So, I gave her lived experiences of women we both knew. I reminded her of our mutual friend at work who lost an internship early in her career when she refused the sexual advances of her boss and of another colleague who was a higher performer than her male peers based on numbers, but who got passed over for promotion. I talked about my own experiences, too. I asked her how she would feel if she’d had those experiences. Her answer told me that by personalizing the issue, I had given her a permission structure to care about gender equality through her value of lived experiences.

4. End on a message of agreement and change. Ending on an agreement is important for de-escalating any emotional tension between you and your coworker. Of course, you still likely have differences. However, by finding some point of agreement, you will leave the conversation on common ground and leave room for another conversation in the future.


It is also essential to prepare a closing that both asks for what you want and endorses your coworker’s ability to grow, learn, and change. You might want your colleague to think about what you have said, you might want them to change their beliefs, or you might just want them to change their behavior. Be specific about this ask so that you can close the conversation strong, and so they know what would let them redeem themselves. Pairing that direction with saying that you believe they can change provides your colleague with everything they need to be better and do better in the future. This helps them improve themselves, it helps you avoid experiencing bias again, and it helps avoid the thing I hear all too often – the worry that “if only I had done enough, things would be different.”


In my conversation with Natasha, it was simple. She had already resolved to be less emotionally reactive to me when discussing gender in the workplace. All I had to do was thank her.


We must add an important caveat, which is that some of your colleagues might be deeply sexist. When this is the case, the conversational approach we describe above will likely mean that you are further exposed to their sexism (and possibly racism and other isms). Our personal stance is that these moments perfectly embody the adage ‘when people show you who they are, believe them.’ You do not want to work with people who are sexist – if after this conversation they haven’t realized a need to change it might not be worth your while to try again.


We also acknowledge that when confronted in this way, some coworkers might double down on their biased comment and go after you for addressing it. Leaders, often men, try to explain their way out of the biased comment, then highlight it wasn’t intentional (see our last newsletter for why that doesn’t matter), and whether immediately or after some time women experience the backlash for having spoken up. We do not wish this for any of you, but we want you to be prepared for it.


In those situations, never feel powerless. They are in the wrong, not you. We are here, and are writing this, to make sure you know this, and know that you are part of a global community of women pushing back against these types of headwinds. If the worst happens, you should feel free to act on your right to share their behavior with other co-workers, go above their head to even more senior leadership, make a complaint with HR, or if you have no other option then go to the outside world (including through legal proceedings) to advocate for your right to be employed in a workplace without bias. Remember that in speaking out against bias, you are doing the diversity work your company likely wants you to do. If they do not act on the opportunity to make the workplace a better, more equal place, or if they prioritize the thoughts and feelings of someone who expresses bias, then they might not deserve you.



How to Take Action: Prepare to Confront.


This whole newsletter is a how to take action! Nonetheless, here are our top 3 tips for honing your skills at confronting gender bias in conversations with your colleagues:


1. Prepare your go-to opening phrase. It may be helpful to think of the last time you heard a sexist remark in the workplace and didn’t speak up. Imagine you could have this conversation again, how would you open the conversation?

2. Practice in less fraught situations. Any new skill takes practice, and the same goes for the skill of confronting bias in the workplace. We suggest that you create safe situations where you can practice. For example, try using these techniques in a conversation about a different topic that feels less personal to you (e.g., anti-vaxxers) or in conversations about gender equality with friends and family members (i.e., people cannot affect your careers).

3. Plan your closing. Choose what you will say to endorse others’ ability to change while asking specifically for the behavior change you deserve. Think back on past conversations where you could have done this, but you did not. What would you say to that person if you could revisit the conversation?


Get in Touch


Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming podcasts and newsletters.


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