Creating greater equity for women takes resilience and determination to navigate a complex web of persistent, deep-rooted biases.

Women’s history in the workforce resembles a ceaseless tug of war, marked by opposing forces. It moves in fits and starts, propelling progress before encountering grinding halts and backward slides. The tensions between societal expectations and women’s ambitions have shaped a narrative of struggle and triumph, and defined the path toward workplace equality.

Over recent decades, the combination of social and economic pressures, increased education for women, safer working environments and the growing women’s movement has resulted in a dramatic increase in women employed outside the home. In the United States, by 1970, 50% of single women and 40% of married women participated in the labor force. By the early 1990s, women aged 25 to 54 had increased participation in the labor force to 74%, and women had entered a far greater range of fields.

Yet workplace bias persists as a formidable impediment to gender equality. Social, economic, and educational advancements have propelled women into diverse fields, but their progress continues to be hindered by pervasive biases – ones that are often concealed. The barriers that confront women today are only sometimes fully recognized for what they are. However, they are rarely unique to a single company, a manager, an individual situation or even one’s leadership skills: they are endemic to nearly every workplace.

Research has illuminated how bias persists even within companies devoted to increasing diversity and inclusion. In one study conducted by professors at Columbia, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago, two-thirds of managers in high-tech firms selected male job candidates even when the men did not perform as well as women on math problems in the application process. The same bias applied in university research laboratories, where a male name on a CV generated more offers, better pay and more mentoring opportunities than a female one.

Notably, women face strong headwinds at the first promotion from entry-level to managerial positions. McKinsey has found that for every 100 men promoted beyond entry level, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color. This is the “broken rung” on the ladder to advancement – and McKinsey warns that it is at least as critical as the “glass ceiling” in senior roles. Of course, such early setbacks have profound implications for building a more equitable pipeline of senior leaders down the road: small wonder that men continue to hold about 60% of leadership positions, even at the managerial level.

Unveiling biases

In today’s evolving professional landscape, organizations strive to foster diversity and inclusion, yet biases persist, particularly against women. Unveiling the dynamics of bias in the workplace is crucial for dismantling systemic barriers and creating environments where everyone can thrive.
One powerful demonstration of bias is the likability penalty – and the divergence in how competence and likability are assessed in men and women. As they ascend the perceived competence ladder, men are seen as more likable. For women, however, the journey toward competence often comes at the cost of likability. This paradoxical scenario, where competence and likability intertwine seamlessly for men but present a complex trade-off for women, underscores the subtle biases ingrained in workplace evaluations.

In addition to the likability penalty, women in male-dominated teams and workplaces – who are what McKinsey terms an “only” – regularly experience extreme pressures and more microaggressions, making them more likely to leave their jobs. These pressures are particularly challenging for women of color, who may be both the only person of their gender and the only person of their race. The 2020 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey found that women of color were 1.5 times more likely than women overall to say they do not have equal opportunity for advancement and 1.9 times more likely to not feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

Another prevalent form of bias is the motherhood penalty. Women who become mothers often face assumptions about their commitment to their careers. This can lead to mothers being presented with fewer opportunities for career advancement and facing exclusion from critical projects, compounding the challenges posed by the likability penalty.

The ambition penalty is another. Women who express ambition and assertiveness may face pushback, as these traits are sometimes viewed negatively, creating additional barriers to their professional growth.

The effectiveness of diversity training

These interconnected penalties contribute to an environment where women, especially those from underrepresented groups, continue to encounter systemic hurdles that hinder their professional development and satisfaction. Those hurdles have not gone un-targeted by employers, of course, through multiple strategies – and a particular focus, over the last decade, on unconscious bias training. Yet this has been subject to some pushback in the business press. Critics question the effectiveness of such programs.

The reality is that unconscious bias programs, when well-designed and implemented, play a crucial role in fostering a more inclusive workplace. The challenge of raising awareness about unconscious biases and their impact still needs to be confronted. But the approach taken may evolve: organizations should adapt their training approaches over time, incorporating evidence-based methods and addressing specific workplace challenges as they emerge.

Crucially, training initiatives need to be complemented by open conversations about gender bias and steps to foster a culture where employees feel empowered to address and challenge stereotypes. Establishing clear policies and practices that support work-life balance, parental leave, and flexible schedules can help mitigate biases associated with caregiving responsibilities, contributing to a more balanced and supportive professional environment.

In this evolving landscape, a commitment to diversity and inclusion remains paramount, with training strategies that are refined and enhanced over time for sustained positive impact.

Taking charge: empowering women

Helping women to navigate the intricate landscape of workplace biases means empowering women to take charge of their professional destinies. The journey from bias to breakthrough requires a proactive stance to building competence and confidence; a redefined sense of leadership based on authenticity; strategic goal-setting; steps to navigate the likability dilemma; and the empowerment of others via mentoring and advocacy.

Cultivating competencies and confidence

To break through workplace biases, women must continue to cultivate and expand their competencies. That involves continuous skill development, staying abreast of industry trends, and actively seeking opportunities for professional growth. However, it’s not just about acquiring skills; it’s also about fostering unwavering confidence in one’s abilities.

As women ascend the corporate ladder, they often encounter situations where their competence is questioned or overlooked. Women must develop a robust sense of self- assurance, recognizing and internalizing their accomplishments.

Embracing authentic leadership

The call to take charge is a call to embrace authentic leadership. The traditional leadership mold often leans toward masculine traits, but authentic leadership knows no gender. Women need not conform to preconceived notions, but embrace their unique strengths and leadership styles. Authentic leadership involves integrity, empathy and a genuine connection to one’s values. It means dispelling the notion that leadership is confined to predefined characteristics and, instead, celebrating the diverse approaches that women bring to the table. By fostering an environment that values authenticity, women can carve out spaces where their leadership styles thrive.

Strategic goal-setting

Taking charge goes hand in hand with strategic goal setting. Women must envision their desired professional outcomes and meticulously plan the steps to achieve them, including setting short-term and long-term goals, identifying potential obstacles and devising strategies to overcome them. Strategic goal-setting also encompasses a holistic view of success – one that goes beyond traditional metrics. Women should define success on their terms, incorporating personal and professional aspirations into a comprehensive framework. This approach ensures that the pursuit of success aligns with individual values, fostering a sense of fulfillment and purpose.

Navigating likability challenges

Women can strategically navigate likability challenges without compromising authenticity. One effective strategy is building strong professional networks and mentorship relationships. Positive relationships within and outside the organization can help counteract biases, providing support systems that recognize and value competence and leadership. This proactive approach allows for a better understanding of how one is perceived in the workplace and provides opportunities for constructive self-adjustment. By navigating likability challenges with resilience and strategic finesse, women can dismantle stereotypes, leading to a workplace culture that values competence and authenticity.

Empowering others: mentorship and advocacy

Taking charge extends beyond individual aspirations: it involves empowering others. Women who have successfully navigated biases can be brilliant mentors to emerging leaders. Mentorship creates a supportive ecosystem where the exchange of knowledge, experiences and opportunities contributes to the overall advancement of women in the workplace. Additionally, advocating for systemic change is a powerful way to take charge on a broader scale. Women leaders can actively participate in initiatives that promote gender equity, challenge biased policies, and foster inclusive workplace cultures. Women become architects of a more equitable professional landscape by using their positions to influence positive change.

From bias to breakthrough

The journey from bias to breakthrough is a collective endeavor that necessitates women taking charge of their narratives. It’s about cultivating competencies, embracing authentic leadership, strategically setting and pursuing goals, navigating challenges with resilience, and extending a hand to empower others. As women redefine what it means to take charge, they not only dismantle biases within their spheres, but also contribute to reshaping the larger narrative of women’s success in the workforce. The call to action is resolute, urging a united effort to foster systemic change and promote inclusivity. The time for change is now, and it demands commitment, collaboration and continuous advocacy for gender equality.