What can you do if you think someone at work is exhibiting bias?
Recently, I conducted several roundtable discussions focused on issues women of color face at work. Throughout these conversations, one obstacle to professional advancement came up again and again: the stubborness of subtle bias.
My own research has long suggested that women of color still encounter prejudicial behavior in the workplace. I was particularly disheartened to read in a recent Catalyst report of an Asian woman’s concern that she was being stereotyped as a “dragon lady” at work.
Research shows that victims of discrimination face a compromised professional image and expectations of poor performance, which are often damaging to their professional prospects.
Not only is the job performance of members of minority groups viewed less favorably. Even when their performance is viewed favorably, it’s less likely to be attributed to ability and competence. One study found that the outstanding performance of successful African American managers was attributed to help from others, rather than to the managers’ own abilities or efforts.
Members of marginalized groups are also considered incompetent until proven otherwise. One study found that men were viewed as highly competent except when their errors were pointed out, whereas women tended to be viewed as highly competent only when presented as unambiguously successful. Another study showed that U.S.-born white men were more likely than women, nonwhites, and/or non-U.S.-born professionals to receive the benefit of the doubt in their performance evaluations and assessments of their eligibility for promotion.
Over time, this type of bias has become more covert and subtle. In the roundtable talks I led, we discussed some of the ways in which we’ve detected subtle bias—for example, the use of certain phrases women of color recognize as “code words” signaling nonovert bias:
“I’m not comfortable with her.”
“She lacks gravitas.”
“She doesn’t fit in with the team.”
“She doesn’t have executive presence.”
Another hallmark of subtle bias is “withholding full support,” which is when a mentor or manager doesn’t offer the same depth of advice and guidance to someone from a marginalized group that he or she does for a majority member.
What can you do if you think someone at work is exhibiting this type of bias? And what can your organization do to ensure that its system of granting promotions is fair and bias-free?
Many diversity and inclusion programs focus on outcomes, rather than on the interpersonal dynamics. My suggestion is to create more nuanced and fine-grained diversity and inclusion programs that include tools to assess whether mentors and managers are providing full support to women of color employees.
The days of signs reading Blacks Need Not Apply and sex-segregated job listings are over. But subtle bias still impedes the career advancement of women—especially women of color—and it won’t disappear unless we take concrete steps to identify and eliminate it.
Doing so will not only free women of color to achieve their full potential at work but will also provide companies with access to untapped talent. Women of color will soar if companies stop clipping their wings. DW
Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.
Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 700 members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.