Gender bias at work. Who is making the coffee in your office?

In every office I have worked in, it’s always a woman making the coffee. At every meeting, it’s been a woman keeping the notes, all the guys beg off (if they are even asked) because their handwriting is supposedly illegible. It’s also a woman who is watering the plants, refilling the printer paper and making sure there are donuts for the morning meeting. I have been a part of the problem as well; I’ve made thousands of pots of coffee and ordered cake for the retirement party for years. In an article by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg for the New York Times called Madam CEO, Get Me a Coffee, “This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world: Women help more but benefit less from it. In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal.” So while I’m making coffee and taking notes, some guy is getting the promotion. Yep! Gender bias at work.  Who is making the coffee in your office?

In an article by Dana Wise in HR Magazine called Bringing Bias into the Light, it turns out that some of this gender bias is unconscious. I might be the breadwinner in my family and my husband may be the one who makes the coffee but when I recently took the Implicit Association Test (IAT) on Gender – Career, I discover I have a moderate bias towards men being associated with the workplace and with women being associated with family and the home. Me! My mother was the only person who worked outside the home on my street in the mid-sixties and my father dutifully did the dishes every night but regardless, I subconsciously associate men with the workplace.

So here are some ideas on how to make work a more even playing field with opportunities for everyone to change:

1. Discover. Take the IAT and discover if you have a bias. Odds are that you have a least a slight bias because the overwhelming majority of assessment takers did. You can’t know that you have a bias unless you find out where you are on the continuum. I tested into the largest cohort (32%) with a moderate bias. Now that I am aware of it, I can look at more objective data like scoring applicants on years of experience, certificates held and level of education. You don’t know what you don’t know.

2. Equalize. Make sure tasks in your workplace are handled equally by both genders. In the Times article they suggest “Assigning communal tasks evenly rather than relying on volunteers can also ensure that support work is shared, noticed and valued.” So ask Joe to make the coffee on Tuesdays or have the minutes be taken on a rotating basis. I actually knew a Vice President who did this with his team and one of his managers was responsible for setting up the minutes and agenda on a rotating basis (two male managers and one female manager). Share the load.

3. Public. Make sure that the efforts are public. In the article, “studies demonstrate that men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors — like showing up at optional meetings — while women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues.” This can be especially difficult for women. We are much more comfortable going behind the scenes and making it look easy. So guys out there? Make sure your female co-worker is being acknowledged publicly for pulling that project off. Make it public.

4. First. Women need to put themselves first. I can remember reading in Sheryl Sanberg’s book “Lean In”, that women will advocate for everyone else but themselves. So become an advocate for yourself. Sometimes I think it’s a great idea to imagine that you advocating for yourself fresh out of college. It’s easier if you think about yourself in the third person. I can ask for a raise for my twenty year old self but not for my middle aged self. According to Grant, “numerous studies show that women (and men) achieve the highest performance and experience the lowest burnout when they prioritize their own needs along with the needs of others.” This means that the women out there need to put themselves first, if not equal to everyone else. So don’t wait to be the last to grab a cookie from the plate, grab it first.

I have to say that as I write this, I asked both of my children to take the IAT (it’s free by the way). I am curious to see how both my son and daughter measure up on the Gender – Career assessment. I really hope that I have been an example of a hard working career minded women and that, on some level, it has seeped into my children’s subconscious mind. I’m guessing that it’s difficult to move gender bias in just one generation.

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