Abrasive–or Assertive? How Unconscious Bias Affected My Career (Blog Post)
I am, by nature, a direct person—a characteristic that generally has served me well, professionally and personally. But at times, I’ve felt the need to tone down my style so I wouldn’t be seen as “abrasive” or “aggressive.” These negative terms frequently are applied to women, while men who exhibit the same traits often are described more positively – as “assertive.” Women and men with the same talents and skills tend to be described in different ways, creating invisible barriers that can have an enormous impact on women’s advancement.
At one job, a male leader constantly interrupted and talked over me and the other women, speaking in a condescending manner. Many of the women avoided responding to him directly—and who can blame them? I did speak up, but I consistently felt I needed to modulate my assertiveness because I was concerned there could be repercussions if he believed he was being challenged.
Once I attended a series of meetings with another male leader who similarly behaved as if he were the most knowledgeable person in the room. He thought his idea was the best; none of the women, including myself, felt comfortable rebutting him directly. (One time, I waited until he left the room—and then removed his idea from the agenda.)
Both men are well-intentioned people who want to see women advance in the workplace. Yet because I was—rightfully—concerned about how gender bias could potentially limit me, I did not assert myself. And the men were oblivious to the power dynamic at play.
That’s the rub: Bias is often unconscious. We are all predisposed to some extent to favor those whom we think are most like ourselves. The challenge is to recognize those biases so that we can overcome them.
Gender bias also is incredibly widespread. That is why Catalyst is expanding our #Biascorrect campaign for International Women’s Day this year. In our increasingly globally connected world, we interact with people of different cultures. Despite the fact that cultural norms differ in various countries, gender bias is near-universal.
Therefore, we are giving more people the ability to fight their own gender bias by making our #BiasCorrect tools—the plug-in app for Slack and photo generator—available in multiple languages. This year, we also are inviting men to participate directly. The plug-in already has been downloaded by nearly 300 teams at a diverse group of companies in industries including finance, technology, fashion, consumer goods, and professional services.
The theme of our Conference and Awards Dinner, taking place on March 12 in New York City, is “Now Is The Moment.” And truly, there could not be a better time to raise awareness and spur action to end gender bias than right now. Workplace norms are changing, giving us the opportunity to pause and think about who we are and how we treat others.
And how we interact with others often begins with the words we use.
Learn more and join the campaign at our #BiasCorrect page.
President & CEO
Lorraine Hariton is President and CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Catalyst’s vision and mission to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion has been a lifelong passion for Lorraine. She is…