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Careers What leaders need to understand about gender blind spots

Psychologist, lawyer, consultant and author of Understanding Gender at Work: How to Use, Lose and Expose Blind Spots for Career Success.

A young woman recently told me she was involved in hiring interviews with a male colleague. A woman, just back from maternity leave, was the best candidate on paper. She was quiet and reserved, asked a lot of questions about the team and the organization, played down her abilities, dismissed a glowing reference as “her boss being really kind” and 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 were over, her male colleague remarked that the woman seemed to lack confidence and competence.

Can you see the gender blind spot? The male interviewer interpreted the woman’s behaviour as indications of a lack of confidence. His female colleague corrected that interpretation. She knew the candidate’s social habits had nothing to do with competence, confidence, ability or talent, and everything to do with social conditioning.

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Gender blind spots (GBS) are beliefs, habits and stereotypes we learn in childhood about how we and others should behave based on gender, and they have a significant impact on women’s careers. They are major obstacles businesses face in increasing diversity and inclusion.

It is important for leaders to understand GBS. Here are four key things to know:

Gender rules and gender blind spots

Although girls and boys are raised side-by-side in childhood, they are raised in two separate cultures. From the playground to the classroom to the boardroom, they are socialized to communicate, interact, lead and behave based on rules that are fundamentally different.

Boys are taught to stand out; both status and achievement are given importance. In direct contrast, girls learn that fitting in is crucial – relationships being paramount. Power among girls is equal and shared, while among boys, it is hierarchical – you are above or below others.

Gender rules become unconscious in adulthood but continue to profoundly impact our habits, assumptions and beliefs about how to work, interact and get ahead. And even though innate gender differences don’t exist, most of us arrive at adulthood with stereotypes fully entrenched in our psyches.

Making your value visible

Since most leaders today are men and the history of paid work has been predominately male, what boys are taught becomes the operating code at work. This means that most women, who have long played by feminine rules, are at a significant disadvantage.

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Executives and managers are recognizing this disadvantage by championing and mentoring women. More and more women tell me that they are being advised on how to make their value visible, how to get noticed within an organization and how to become influential. These women learn that doing excellent work alone in your office day-after-day is not enough; you have to tell people about it.

Some men are even pointing out who in the organization these women need to talk to or what committees to get on.

Closing the wage gap

Women, who are better than men at negotiating for others, do not do well when negotiating for themselves. They tend to have lower expectations and will take what is given. I have heard numerous stories about women who are the best candidates for a role but ask for far less than the male candidates.

Not asking for or negotiating a higher salary is a GBS. Women don’t ask for two reasons: fear of the relationship and reputation costs of doing so, and a lack of knowledge about how and when to negotiate. This GBS can have a significant effect on a woman’s career advancement and may result in her missing out on up to $1.5-million in retirement savings.

Savvy leaders can counter this GBS by pushing for equal pay for equal work and providing transparency around salaries and bonuses. If that is not possible, leaders can make it clear to women that negotiating a salary offer is acceptable.

Identifying female leaders

Stereotypical leadership is still defined by traditionally masculine traits. This GBS hinders women from attaining leadership positions and makes it harder for them to be perceived as effective leaders. If they adopt a tradition­ally masculine style of leadership, they risk being judged as aggressive or domineering, not to mention unlikeable. If they adhere to a more traditionally feminine approach, they are seen as more likeable but are judged as not tough enough, too accommodating and not competent.

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Research on leadership finds no significant differences in how men and women lead, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, as the correct approach depends on the given situation. Ironically, the most effective leadership styles are those associated with feminine approaches.

Leaders can deal with gender blind spots in a number of ways: by using a variety of leadership styles to help disrupt the stereotype of masculine leadership, hunting for female leaders who may have been overlooked due to ingrained biases, setting clear numerical goals for the number of female leaders in an organization, and championing and supporting female leaders.

In order to see the hidden obstacles to gender balance, both male and female leaders need to be aware of their own GBS, others’ GBS and those of the organization they lead. Until that happens, progress toward gender balance will continue to stall.

This is one in a series of articles being published in the week of International Women’s Day.

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