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Karen Edwards Blogger

Recognizing and Eliminating Unconcious Gender Biases

Posted by Karen Edwards | February 23, 2015

Welcome to the second posting of the Össur Women’s Leadership Initiative Blog! We are excited to see the number of registrants growing every day, and we hope to reach 200 members by the end of March! This month’s topic:


Did you see the commercial during the Super Bowl in whichyoung peoplewere asked to “run like a girl?” If you had been asked, would you have run on your tiptoes with arms waving at your sides? Before you saw that commercial, would you have even thought about that phrase meaning anything else? Every culture has conscious and unconscious roles that we learn and emulate as appropriate for our gender. We recognize that most modern cultures reinforce the stereotype that men are driven leaders and women are sensitive caregivers (nothing wrong with BEING either of those things, just with them being mutually exclusive to a gender). Whether or not you actually agree with these roles, you may be making decisions in your work and personal life based on biases that you aren’t even aware you have. This is particularly true when we define what it means to be successful as a woman versus a man.

As noted in Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, a study conducted in 2003 by Columbia Business School demonstrates this vividly. Two professors “ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They started with a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. The case described how Roizen became a successful venture capitalist by using her ‘outgoing personality … and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.’ (The professors) assigned half of the students to read Heidi’s story and gave the other half the same story with just one difference – they changed the name ‘Heidi’ to ‘Howard’.”

They then polled the students about their impressions of Heidi or Howard. Though the students rated both as equally competent, they rated Howard as more appealing and Heidi as selfish and someone they would not want to work with.

This and other research has shown that successful men are liked by both genders while successful women are less liked by both genders.

Additionally, as documented in What Works for Women at Work by Joan C. Williams, women’s mistakes tend to be noticed and successes seem to be overlooked. As Williams says, when a man and a woman rise to the top, the thought is that “he’s successful, she’s lucky.”

Another unconscious bias often encountered is that we typically expect a man to be successful, but we want a woman to prove she is capable of success, often multiple times, before we believe she actually is successful. Hence managers often unconsciously wait until a woman “proves” herself before giving her an upper-level assignment or promotion, while a man is promoted or given the assignment with the assumption that he will succeed. This bias also results in women perceiving themselves as “not good enough” when faced with taking on a new assignment or asking for a promotion.

Our biases also tell us that a woman is meant to be modest, hence,she is not liked if she touts her successes or speaks as a leader (remember Beyonce’s campaign against the word “bossy”?), and yet a man is seen as a leader if he openly speaks of his accomplishments. As Williams says, “If women are liked, they are not respected. If they are respected, they are not liked.”

Lastly, women often feel most competitive with other women, but don’t actually know why they feel that way. The answer? As Sandberg explains, the old-school thought is that, sure, a woman can make it to the proverbial boardroom, but there will only be room there for one of us. Therefore, we as women are unconsciously competing with each other for that one space.

As women in the OP field, how do we change our own biases and overcome the biases of others that work against us? Here are some ideas:

  1. Take a moment to stop and recognize unconscious biases you may have. Be honest with yourself. Do you tend to view outspoken men as leaders and outspoken women as bossy? Do you feel competitive with other women in your workplace? Being aware of your own biases is the first step to eliminating them.
  2. Evaluate your own decisions. If you are a leader in your company, reflect on recent management decisions you have made. Can you recognize any unconscious biases that may have influenced you? Make a conscious effort to evaluate your actions and to eliminate unfair biases from your decisions.
  3. Take a risk. If you aren’t being considered for high level assignments, ask for them. If you are given the opportunity to take on a new role, do it. If you find yourself questioning your own qualifications and thinking Im not good enough, do it anyway.
  4. Say no sometimes. If you find that as the femaleemployee in the office you are given lower level tasks and/or the “housekeeping” assignments, suggest a male colleague as someone better or equally suited for the task, thus challenging and changing the biases used to assign these responsibilities in a positive way.
  5. Publicly praise your female colleagues. As Williams says, “form a posse and publicly celebrate each other’s successes.” If you feel your work environment will look down on you touting your own success, recruit others to do it for you. This also eliminates the need to prove yourself repeatedly because others are already proving it for you.
  6. Support each other. Support and encourage women in your organization to speak up and to take on leadership roles. The more women we have as leaders, the fewer differences we will see between genders. And the fewer differences we see, the fewer gender biases we will have.

What other ideas do you have for ways to eliminate and handle gender biases in the OP profession? Have you or your colleagues found ways that work? Please email us and share your stories! We will publish your ideas and suggestions in a future blog.

Quarterly Leadership Challenge (a.k.a. WIN SOME FREE COFFEE!): As posted in last month’s blog, our challenge to you is to read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook). Please email us at and let us know your thoughts on the book and how you will use what you’ve learned to be a stronger leader in OP. The first three women to read the book and respond to us will receive a $10 Starbuck’s gift card! We’ll announce the winners in the March edition of the OWLI blog.

Lastly, we are busy working on our first webinar scheduled for Friday, March 13, 12pm EST. Details and registration information will be emailed to you very soon!

Thanks for being a part of OWLI and congratulations for taking the initiative to be a leader in your profession!

Until March,

Karen Edwards

Director, Össur Women’s Leadership Initiative

OWLI Quote of the Month:We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change. — Sheryl Sandberg

Sources cited in this month’s blog:

Sandberg, Sheryl and Nell Scovell. Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead. New York: Random House, 2013.

Williams, Joan C., and Rachel Dempsey. What Works For Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. New York: NYU Press, 2014.

Talk to us!! Your feedback is welcomed and encouraged! Please let us know what you think of our initiative, share your ideas, share your victories, or just say “hi” by emailing us at And follow us on Twitter @OWLIOssur.