How to Win Against Unconscious Gender Bias

How to Win Against Unconscious Gender Bias
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“For women, there’s a fine line between speaking your mind vs sounding like a bitch.”

As I sat on a panel at a tech conference, I looked out into the audience and heard a woman in the back row utter this comment.

The Stats According to research on the Women’s Leadership Gap:

  • Women make up 50.8% of the U.S. population.
  • Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988.


  • Women make up 6% of S&P 500 CEOs.
  • As of 2016, 43% of the 150 highest-earning public companies in Silicon Valley had no female executive officers at all.
  • Female tech founders raised 2% of Venture Capital Dollars in 2016.

It’s clear that women and men start off in equal numbers at birth and stay at equal numbers in college. Yet, somewhere between college and leadership we lose the majority of women.

Are the odds really forevermore stacked against women in business? Or, can something be done to even things out? What can women do to increase their odds of success in business and get a real seat at the proverbial table?

I, for one, am confident that together, men and women can work to increase the success of women in business.

Here’s how… My story As a female tech founder and CEO, three-time entrepreneur, and cancer survivor, I’ve experienced real failure: I’ve been pushed down, harassed, fired, and passed over for promotions. I missed month after month of work during chemotherapy and took off almost two full years of working to raise my daughter who was born at 1.5 pounds.

I’ve also experienced real success: I’ve been promoted, started businesses, owned and ran businesses, sold businesses, and worked with some of the most amazing teams in the world.

Throughout my journey, I’ve learned a few secrets of success. These secrets aren’t a golden ticket. Grit and hard work are, and always will be, the most important ingredients for a successful career. Yet, I believe the secrets I’ve learned can go a long way in stacking the odds of success in your favor.

Secret #1: Accept gender bias

We all need to accept the fact gender bias is real. Don’t believe me? Read the case study about Heidi Roizen. A Columbia Business School professor presented his class with a case study about a successful venture capitalist. Unbeknownst to the class, the professor gave the class two different case studies. Half of the students read about a venture capitalist named Heidi and the other half read about a venture capitalist named Howard. Other than the name change, the two case studies were identical. Yet, while students ranked Heidi and Howard equally competent, both male and female students liked Howard and disliked Heidi.

So, let me reiterate secret #1:: Accept the reality gender bias exists; always has, always will.

Secret #2: Accept gender bias is often unconscious

Although some people are outright and blatantly biased against others, the large majority of gender bias is actually unconscious. That means you, me, and everyone else is biased, and we don’t even know we’re doing it. Referencing back to the Heidi/Howard case study, the business school students were all biased and they didn’t know it.

This means in order to be a successful woman in business, you have to fight against something that is invisible.

The visible, outright gender bias is often easy to spot and my recommendation in that case is to stay away (if possible) from anyone or any team who is blatantly gender biased; you will have a long, tough road ahead of you succeeding as a woman in business in that type of environment.

For the unconscious gender bias that’s harder to spot, it takes some strategic work, and that’s what Secret #3 is about.

Secret #3: Build allies outside the boardroom

Accepting gender bias exists doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.

The biggest mistake I see women make is equating fact with failure.Women will say, “Gender bias exists, therefore I can’t succeed.”

That’s nonsense.

Instead, let’s turn this statement into, “Gender bias exists, therefore I must be smart about how to deal with it.”

Here’s how.

The most effective tactic for dealing with gender bias is to build allies outside the boardroom.

Don’t wait until you are in a room full of men and women to try and win them all over at once. Instead, get to know the players one-on-one and build rapport over time.

Let’s say you have a strategic idea and you have a monthly team meeting with your peers. As part of this meeting, each team member can nominate topics to be discussed.

Here’s the secret: don’t nominate new topics in the meeting.

Instead, get buy-in before you walk into that meeting. Go out to coffee, lunch, or drinks one-on-one with each of your team members. Float the idea to them, get feedback, get their input. Ask, “What are your thoughts on this idea? What am I missing?” Get them to poke holes in it and add their perspective.

This way, by the time you get to that monthly meeting and nominate your topic, each of your peers has already heard it before and had time to think about it.

In my personal experience, the tactic of gaining allies one-on-one goes a long way in balancing out unconscious gender bias.

Secret #4: Lean In Continuously

Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 TED talk Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, which was the inspiration for her best selling book, Lean In, nails it. Sandberg says, “Don’t leave before you leave.”

That is: Lean In Continuously.

The biggest mistake I see women make is believing in order to have children, they must end their career. I’ve seen women work for years and then stop their career cold turkey to have kids, without thinking about what they might want to do in the following years of their lives career-wise. Even worse, I’ve seen women stop their career cold turkey because they might have kids some day in the future.

Being a working mom is tough; it’s very tough. Yet, it’s doable and there are flexible options.

My advice to you: absolutely under no circumstances are you to believe you have to choose between being a mom and having a career.

Instead, think about all of the shades of grey in-between. It is possible to take time off to raise children, both short-term and long-term. It is possible to find a career that enables work/life balance and flexible work hours so you can be home when needed.

It is possible.

Lean In Continuously and you can have success in both business and in life. Have goals — ambitious goals — and work towards them year after year in a way that fits in with your life.

Secret #5: Have Grit

Above all, have grit. Have courage and resolve.

Because success has very little to do with how you win; it has everything to do with how you pick yourself up after you fall.

You will most certainly face failure in your road to success. You will most certainly face days that seem impossible to get through. You will most certainly face roadblocks that appear too big to get around.

But stick with it. Go ahead and take that risk! Don’t fear failure. Don’t let the unknown hold you back. Instead, be confident in your ability to learn from failure and press on.

And if you need a little extra encouragement, know that women leaders outperform men leaders. By a lot. The investment firm First Round Capital found women-led startups performed 63% better than the ones founded by men.The Kauffman Foundation found “female tech entrepreneurs generated, on average, a 35% higher return on investment than their male counterparts.”

You go girl!

Originally posted on HuffPo.

Debbie Madden

Debbie Madden

Founder & Chairwoman

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