Bias is real and we all have it – both men and women. It’s often hard to recognize, as bias is the result of cultural and societal norms that have existed for decades or more. Thus, the challenge for changing subtle behaviors requires intentional action. Earlier this week, RiskSpan co-hosted with the Structured Finance Association a lively panel discussion focused on taking intentional action towards achieving a gender-equal future.

The heart of the discussion focused on unconscious gender bias in the workplace and strategies to effect change. The group discussed the importance of intentionality to drive the mission forward and the required participation of men. Part of the dialogue addressed how women and men interact in the workplace (having lunch is completely appropriate), and the need to sometimes get comfortable being uncomfortable. The panel included a sole male representative, but the room was filled with roughly 25% men. One important take-away was that the goal of gender equality is simply unattainable without the commitment and sustained effort from both women and men, and a continued dialogue on the subject is essential. 

Further, to effect social change, economic incentives have to be sustainable and aligned with the social mission. With women graduating from college at higher rates than ever before, we are beginning to unleash half of our country’s brainpower into many fields, including business, finance and tech, that continue to be dominated by men. Women in these fields continue to face obstacles stemming from gender bias. These biases need to be addressed head-on with intentional strategies for change.

Common Gender Biases and Strategies for Change

Myth No. 1: There are plenty of women in the C-suite, so what’s the problem?

Although there has been progress with better representation of women in the C-suite, the pay gap continues to exist and is significant. Part of this relates to the fact that there are more women in C-level jobs that are considered “less risky.” These less-risky jobs include legal, compliance, or accounting, as opposed to jobs such as Chief Investment Officer, Head of Capital Markets or CEO.  

Earning potential increases not only with experience and qualification, but with a bold ambition that tends to be encouraged more often among men than women (think competitive sports). This may contribute to a more heightened fear of failure among women — the business world is no exception to that.   

Strategy for change:
Assure all members of your team, regardless of gender, that mistakes are inevitable and recoverable. What’s important is how you react to a mistake or challenge. Further, encourage women to challenge themselves – invite women to lead the next challenging project and client pitch. A favorite quote of mine serves as a reminder of this:

“I always go back to my grandmother’s advice the first time I fell and hurt myself. She said, ‘Honey, at least falling on your face is a forward movement.’ You have to be willing to be brave enough to risk falling on your face, to risk failing… Everything we do is about taking risks.”

Pat Mitchell

Myth No. 2: The workplace is (solely) a meritocracy

The fact is advancement happens not only via hard work and merit, but via personal relationships and connections. This is not to say that qualifications don’t matter – of course they do. But it is human nature to consider the people you know best, have met face-to-face, or have worked with. Others may be qualified, but if you don’t know them, you’re simply not going to consider them. This is particularly difficult for women who often expect to be recognized and rewarded for their great work. However, they are missing a big part of the equation – networking and relationship building and sponsorship.  

Strategy for change:
Find a sponsor that will advocate for you when you’re not in the room. For managers, reach out to the next generation of women and make the needed introduction to help expand her network (and invite her to coffee – it’s totally appropriate). Include women in regular networking events and create a networking practice that is naturally welcoming for women to participate in.

Myth No. 3: It is inappropriate for a man and woman to have an unchaperoned business lunch

A 2017 New York Times article reported that most people (women as well as men) thought it inappropriate for a person to have a drink with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

Let’s face it — It can be awkward for a man to ask a female colleague (particularly a subordinate) to join him for coffee, lunch, or a drink. However, this significant social barrier disadvantages women and hinders their opportunity for advancement. It is virtually impossible to level the playing field if women and men can’t develop a professional relationship that includes socializing over coffee or a meal.

Business communities incorporate professional socializing to foster relationships and partnerships. This extends to advancement opportunities. You typically select the people to promote from a short list of people you know well and feel comfortable with. The people you are having lunch with are the ones who are most likely to make the list. 

Strategy for change:
Start with coffee – invite her for a 1:1 conversation. The only way to break with this social norm may be to get comfortable being uncomfortable. This means it’s ok for a woman to ask a man to coffee or lunch or visa-versa (particularly between a senior and a subordinate). Treat everyone with respect and professionalism, and never withhold an invitation simply on the basis of gender.

Myth No. 4: Women with children don’t want to travel

Managers sometimes make this assumption and withhold assignments from women that require travel – be it for a conference or a critical client engagement. Although the intention might be noble, the impact is detrimental. Doing so deprives women of the same opportunities as men to engage with important clients and others in the industry. It undermines her ability to make decisions and may adversely impact how she is viewed and valued by her peers. 

Strategy for change:
Always offer travel opportunities equally among team members regardless of gender, marital status, or motherhood/fatherhood and allow the choice to be theirs. Resist reinforcing stereotypes that consequentially keep mothers at home.