What Planet Are You From? Dissecting Gender-Derived Bias At Work

Personal bias is a tough topic to approach. Even those of us who can acknowledge that we see the world through the filter of our own life experiences are still often unable to reckon with our partiality. We sometimes see bias exclusively as a shortcoming, when in actuality, it’s an inevitable part of the equation that equals us. If you read my recent article Gauging Personal Bias: How We’re Blinded By Experience, you’ll discover how different cultural, ethnic and geographical interpretations of the same tradition or “experience” create predictable biases within each of us, and how if we don’t acknowledge these biases, we’ll never learn from them.

Continuing in this exploration of our personal “terroir”, it soon becomes evident that our bias filters can be gender-based as well. This complicating factor can be fascinating to study, and in particular, is crucial to understand when considering the advancement of women in the business environment. Let’s break this concept down in a few ways— some iconic, and some unexpected.

Getting Down To Earth

It might come as no surprise that gender affects our bias. But the science behind this didn’t get a fair look until relatively recently. John Gray’s book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus became a cultural phenomenon in the 1990s for being perhaps the first work ever written for popular audiences about how the sexes see the world differently. As the title implies, the sexes are so different that it’s as if we originated on different planets and that “each sex is acclimated to its own planet’s society and customs, but not to those of the other.” Although most of the text applies the outlook to romantic male/female relationships, it can be appropriated to the way male and female colleagues interact in the workplace, demonstrating that many intrinsic biases are gender-specific and need to be acknowledged as such. It brings to mind the famous observation that “Ginger Rogers performed the same dance Fred Astaire, except backwards and in high heels”, not because it projects Ginger as a heroine, but because it implies how men and women can see the same situation 180 degrees differently.

Assuming Positive Intent

Suzanne Hopgood, a colleague of mine who has written about Women on Boards and has shared quite a few horrifically humorous stories about being on boards, speaks for many women when she says, “Men would be shocked if I pointed out every time their words or actions dismiss, ignore and/or insult women.” In Suzanne’s statement, she acknowledges that for the most part, men don’t realize they are insulting women, and are basically ‘good guys’. Aside from the misdeeds of serial perpetrators of harassment, what can be infuriating for a woman to hear may be seen as a genuine compliment by many men.

This can also be a way to mark the beginning of a cultural shift, like embracing iconic business executive Indra Nooyi’s philosophy of “Assume positive intent”. When a male colleague says something that raises the hair on the back of your neck, your move can be to take a deep breath and understand he didn’t intend to insult you. Then, take another breath just to settle down your stimulated amygdala, and ask his permission to reframe the statement. This is your opportunity to offer him the gift of perspective and inspire his ways going forward rather than engaging in a bias-derived clash. This is also your call to action to take ownership of the gender disconnect and empathetically lead the way in educating men about their biases. Without us as women taking that extra step, our evolving relationship with male colleagues will not achieve its goals.

Separating Work From Play

Since men and women have evolved in the workplace quite differently, it’s beneficial for us all to consider the gender-based differences in our social DNA. For instance, men see work as separate from the self in more distinct ways than women do. They’re able to detach their professional lives from their personal lives by playing the work ‘game’ more effectively. Women, by contrast, see work as more integral to their sense of self and their personal identity. For them, it’s harder to untether professional issues from personal ones, since historically, women’s work experience has been rooted in the home. The goal is for women to stop taking things so personally and to better compartmentalize. Like many aspects of EQ, this is easier said than done.

So it’s established: Ethnicity, Social Class, Geographic Location and Gender are the basis of our personal terroir! In my follow-up article I’ll look at some “micro-climates” that distinguish our terroir and try to further unravel the mysteries behind personal bias.