How Gender Bias Holds Women Back in Leadership Roles: Prove Yourself Again

This is the first of a four-part series examining patterns of gender bias affecting female executives, and how “bias interrupters” can be used to challenge them.

This is the first of a four-part series examining patterns of gender bias affecting female executives, and how “bias interrupters” can be used to challenge them.

A decade of talent and diversity work in the construction industry has given me access to the challenges in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) community. Despite years of dedicated work of “filling the base” with females and ethnic minorities, these industries still struggle with promoting and retaining their hard-earned talent. The infamous Google memo incident, in which an employee criticized the company’s inclusion efforts and attributed the lack of female advancement to women’s biological makeup, merely underlines the fact that female executives in male-dominated industries are subject to gender bias that holds them back. In fact, 96% of women report having experienced gender bias, and women of color, with the double burden of gender and ethnic bias, face an even more challenging situation.

We all have biases, and having them doesn’t make us bad people. Biases are based on the basic human need to make sense of the world around us through creating categories that become tied to either positive or negative associations. While we can’t prevent these “mind bugs” from forming—through life experiences or social messaging—we can prevent acting on them.

While bias needs to be addressed on an organizational level in STEM and non-STEM organizations alike, individual leaders can do a lot to raise awareness and counteract the effects of bias. In this latest series of blog posts, we draw from the research by Joan C. Williams (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), who has identified the most common bias patterns and how bias interrupters can be used to challenge them. This first bias pattern we will call “prove it again.”

“look for opportunities to publicly acknowledge women’s accomplishments, and push back when women say they are “not ready” or “not qualified.”

Prove Yourself Again
In the Williams study, 68% of women executives have experienced the “prove-it-again” bias, which essentially is a double standard: in order to be seen as equally competent, women need to perform better than men. Their successes are credited more to luck or circumstance than to skill, and their mistakes are noticed more and remembered longer. Objective requirements are often applied rigorously to them and more leniently to others. Additionally, while men are judged on their potential, women tend to be judged on their performance alone. A single mistake can become generalized into broad negative perceptions and reinforce negative stereotypes of women as a group. Interestingly enough, superstar women tend to get higher evaluations than men, but the women who are a notch down often get much lower evaluations.

What Female Executives Can Do

  • Move outside your comfort zone, push past the overachiever mentality, and take risks on putting yourself out there. If a promotion requires nine things, don’t wait until you have 10—just go for it.
  • Be clear on what experiences/accomplishments make you eligible for a promotion, and then get to work gaining them.
  • Ensure that your goals and accomplishments are clearly measurable, so that there is no room for subjectivity in evaluating their attainment.
  • Capture the breadth of your successes through keeping careful, real-time records of your accomplishments: goals achieved, the impact of your leadership, and recognition you receive throughout the year.
  • Communicate and ensure that your boss and other key stakeholders have visibility into your results throughout the year.
  • Form a posse—a group of allies who can help advocate for each other, for example, by ensuring that no one is held to a different standard or by calling out stolen ideas (that is, ideas that are first voiced by a woman and ignored, then restated by a man and celebrated).

What Allies Can Do
When evaluating people for hire/promotions/extended scale and scope, make people pre-commit on what the nonnegotiable qualifications are. If you note people diverging, push back and have them explain why. “Can you help me understand how Jane’s situation is different from John’s?” is a helpful question to ask.

For vague statements such as “cultural fit,” “gut feel,” “has what it takes,” or “natural leader,” challenge the team to break them down into concrete behaviors.

Be sure that the concepts of performance and potential are evaluated separately rather than lumped together.

Women receive less credit and give themselves less credit, which can lead to an eroded self-confidence. As a result, they are less likely to present themselves for promotions and stretch assignments. Therefore, look for opportunities to publicly acknowledge women’s accomplishments, and push back when women say that they are “not ready” or “not qualified.”

When you notice a stolen idea occur in a meeting, say, “I’ve been pondering that ever since Pam first said it.”

It is easy to feel powerless when faced with the barriers of gender bias—the patterns seem so pervasive and difficult to change. Part of the difficulty lies in their often subconscious nature; we simply don’t notice the invisible map with which we navigate the world. For us to be able to scrutinize those internal maps and find strategies and solutions to deal with them, we first need to surrender to the fact of their existence. The potential for change lies in the actions performed by female executives themselves and in the power of their allies creating a system of partnership, support, and advocacy.


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