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Try this Rx for gender-bias 'paper cuts'

Monday, August 3, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Anne Perschel

The term "micro-inequities" was coined by economist and MIT professor Mary Rowe to describe ways in which individuals are singled out, overlooked, ignored or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic, such as gender or race.

I call them "gender bias paper cuts" when they pertain to women.

Related: Stop saying "women can't have it all"

Back in 1973, Rowe was asked by MIT's president and chancellor to find areas the university could improve its workplace with respect to minorities. Rowe discovered some big issues. But to her surprise, she also discovered the seemingly "little issues" that over time corroded professional confidence and sense of belonging.

Among these small acts were: expecting the woman in the room to serve the coffee, "Please bring your wife" posted on holiday party announcements and not being introduced at chance encounters among colleagues.

Times have changed and these types of specific micro-inequities occur less frequently. But gender bias paper cuts still happen. When they do, many of us aren’t prepared to respond. We should be.

Take the case of Sarah C. (not her real name), one of three physicians in her field to perform a groundbreaking, complex procedure. She suffered more of a "knife wound" than a paper cut this year when she spoke at an international conference of her peers. A respected elder physician introduced her like this: "I haven’t read Dr. C's bio, so I can’t tell you about her background, but I think you’ll find she's quite pleasant to look at."

Imagine walking to the podium following that introduction! Horrified and shocked, Sarah couldn’t come up with a response, especially given the setting, the audience and the "stature" of the physician who introduced her. Complicating matters, Sarah had her sight on becoming a department chair, and the elder physician would be on the review committee. She was further humiliated and deeply disappointed that none of her peers spoke up for her. Later, when she recovered from the shock, many responses came to mind, but she worried about being labeled a "bitch" if she had used them.

Lesser cuts

Most gender bias paper cuts are less severe. Here's a typical example: Following a daylong retreat, the male attendees pile into a limo and head for the local cigar bar. The two women attending are literally left standing in the cold.

Or, another: a manager announces at the end of a daylong retreat that a meeting will "continue in the sauna." The lone female executive in the group is aware there are separate saunas for men and women. The men hadn't noticed. She's on her own to raise the issue. She is inadvertently left out and singled out, with a potentially negative and embarrassing spotlight overhead.

Finally, consider this common scenario: Sandra and Bob, her manager, are meeting with a new vendor. Sandra is in charge of the project, but the vendor never makes eye contact with her. He speaks only and directly to Bob.

To start healing gender bias paper cuts, I offer four Band-Aids:

  • Find supporters, raise awareness and ask for help before the cuts occur.
  • Read the context.
  • Determine the outcomes you want to achieve.
  • Take the high road, but don't get on a high horse.

Dr. Anne Perschel is a leadership psychologist with Germane Consulting and co-founder and chief inspiration officer at 3Plus International, a career lab for high achieving and high potential women.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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