What are Your Gender Blind Spots?

Men and women learn behaviours at a young age that are carried into the workplace. Is there anything you need to change to eliminate gender biases?

Here’s an example provided to me by a coaching client: “As director of communication and marketing in a tech company, she worked quietly behind the scenes creating presentations and videos that employees loved and executives rated as excellent. She was therefore puzzled when an executive advised her that she needed to make her value more visible. In his opinion she needed to do a victory lap after a great presentation and, in failing to do so, she appeared to lack self-assurance.”

It was only after I explained “masculine rules,” the operating code at most businesses, that she understood the executive’s “advice.” Making her value visible to others in the organization was not automatically achieved through excellent work but by making sure others are aware of it — by standing out and taking credit. According to her colleague and mentor, she needed to promote her accomplishments to receive the recognition and reward she was due. 

Blind Spots

This is not the only situation where feminine gender habits are misread. When women are in situations where self-promotion is required, feminine habits of “fitting in” are often misinterpreted. This next example epitomizes this habit and was noted by a woman who was involved in job interviews along with a male colleague: “We interviewed a woman just back from maternity leave. She was the best candidate on paper. During the interview she was quiet and reserved, asked a lot of questions about the team and the organization, downplayed her abilities and dismissed a glowing reference as “her boss being really kind.” She asked for a far lower salary than the male candidates. The male candidates in contrast were very confident about their skills, eager to talk about their experience, asked few questions and had higher salary requests. After the interviews, my male colleague remarked that the woman seemed to lack confidence and competence.”

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The young woman recognized that her male colleague had misread the gender habits of the woman as a lack of confidence — a form of gender blind spot. She immediately corrected his interpretation and knew the candidate’s social habits had nothing to do with competence, confidence, ability or skill and everything to do with social conditioning in childhood. 

To avoid this particular gender blind spot, it is important to know how feminine gender habits arise and how they come to be viewed as a lack of confidence through a male lenses. 

Gender Habits

Although boys and girls grow up side-by-side, the values they are taught, the messages they receive and the rules that govern their behaviours are totally different. Most boys learn that status and achievement are important, while most girls learn that relationships are key. Based on these rules, girls learn to fit into the group while boys are taught to stand out.

Thus boys, and later men, believe that everyone aspires to stand out to achieve recognition and success. If someone doesn’t ask for what they want, doesn’t take back the floor when interrupted or doesn’t take credit for excellent work, it will look like that person lacks confidence and perhaps even competence. More and more men from collective cultures, such as China, are telling me that their behaviour is also misinterpreted in this way. 

Since gender habits become unconscious in adulthood, most women are not aware when they use them or how others perceive them. Thus, an important goal for women is to become aware of any gendered habits they may have and to start using them consciously rather than automatically. 

With greater awareness of gender habits and their potential for misinterpretation, miscommunication at work can be reduced and even prevented. This awareness will permit the strengths, talents and abilities of women to be clearly seen and allow diversity to flourish in the workplace.

Tips to Solve Gender Blind Spots

  1. Ensure women in your organization know how to make their value visible and their contributions known. Encourage them to take credit for their outstanding work. 
  2. Level the playing field when hiring by taking out all demographic information from job applications and using structured interviews to assess candidates. 
  3. Have a diverse hiring committee so gender and cultural habits that signal a lack of confidence, or even a lack of competence, will be correctly interpreted during the meeting.
  4. Recognize the tendency of women in job interviews to try to fit in and not stand out. This can include downplaying credentials, not wanting to talk about themselves and asking many questions.
  5. Women negotiate very well for others but not for themselves. They also have lower salary expectations than men. 
  6. To close the gender wage gap, support pay transparency. Do a wage audit to assess gender gaps and make it clear when salaries are negotiable. [/restict]

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Delee Fromm
WRITTEN BY
Delee Fromm
Delee Fromm is a psychologist, lawyer and author, as well as a teacher, having taught and coached for the past 25 years. She is principal of Delee Fromm Consulting in Toronto.