10 Tips to Fight Gender Discrimination

This article was originally published for SHRM’s HR Magazine.

Everyone, Lean In
Vol. 60 No. 1
Gender discrimination is alive and well. Here are 10 ways to fight it.

Sheryl Sandberg got people talking about gender equality at work with her best-seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013)—but why should women have to do all the leaning?

Every organization—and that means the men and women who run companies—must do more to ensure that women have an equal opportunity to lead.

Yes, we have come a long way since 1964, when gender discrimination became unlawful, but we still have a long way to go.

Below I offer 10 ways organizations can increase gender equality from the top down.

1. Get Women on Boards

Greater representation of women on boards of directors is critical. Boards with at least one woman are likely to crush the competition, according to a Business Insider article. Diversity matters!

Having women on boards can also call attention to the elephant in the room at many companies—that there is a boys’ club at the top or at least in certain silos. Power makes it easier to speak up, regardless of gender.

In addition, the presence of women on the board sends a powerful message to executive women and customers that the company “gets it.”

Finally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and most state laws do not apply to board positions, where there is no employment status. Therefore, employers can do what they generally cannot do for senior leadership positions—that is, take gender into consideration when filling board positions or even reserve a board position for a woman.

2. Educate Senior Leadership

Both the board of directors and the senior leadership team must understand the legal issues associated with gender discrimination (see sidebar).

Training should also emphasize the business benefits of gender equality, including the talent imperative, connection with and access to customers, diversity of ideas, and supplier diversity. Where there is gender diversity among senior leadership, companies outperform their competitors.

3. Hire and Promote

To increase gender (and other) diversity of the applicant pool, work to:

  • Ensure that the minimum job requirements are not so high that they exclude women simply because this group has been denied opportunities in leadership until relatively recently. This does not mean lowering standards but rather assessing them more realistically.
  • Increase the diversity of the applicant pool through general and targeted recruiting. Word-of-mouth is not enough.
  • Distribute applications to hiring managers without names. Consciously protect yourself from your unconscious bias, which brings us to …

4. Fight Biases

The use of diverse hiring teams that have received appropriate training should help to ensure that neither conscious nor unconscious gender bias plays a part in decision-making. Particular attention should be paid to avoiding:

  • “Like-me” bias, or hiring managers’ preference for candidates who resemble them. Note that hiring based on whether someone would be a “good fit” can mask unlawful “like-me” bias.
  • Double standards. What’s considered commendably assertive in a man should not be considered unacceptably aggressive in a woman.
  • Gender stereotyping. Guard against impermissible assumptions about women who have or are perceived likely to have children.
  • Discrimination against men. Employers can focus on differences in experiences, perspectives, contacts and styles. However, absent a remedial purpose, narrowly defined, employers generally cannot consider gender in hiring decisions, even when the goal is laudably to increase diversity.

5. Evaluate Work Assignments

Critically evaluate your organization’s work assignment systems to ensure that the work is being distributed fairly and equitably and not based on personal relationships.

The importance of the assignment process cannot be overemphasized. It often determines who has the experience and the connections to rise to the top based on merit. Plum assignments:

  • Increase necessary experience.
  • Grant exposure to the senior leadership team and sometimes the board.
  • Help forge customer/client relationships and the personal return on investment that goes with it.

6. Show Them the Money

We have a gender gap when it comes to pay. It is shrinking, but it is still there.

There are fair questions about whether the gap is solely due to gender. Taking time off to raise a family, whether you are male or female, may play a role.

Let’s assume the gap is 10 percent. (I believe it is higher.) How many men would say “no big deal” to a 10 percent reduction in salary? I know I wouldn’t.

Gender gaps in compensation not only can be attacked in litigation but also can result in less engagement by talented women. So assess and correct areas where gaps cannot credibly be explained; consider conducting the analysis initially under privilege so that plaintiffs’ lawyers cannot take advantage of your good efforts.

7. Practice Social Inclusion

Social inclusion is a big part of business inclusion. In fact, I bristle at the term “social inclusion” because I think it diminishes its importance.

Everyone should make a conscious effort to ensure that social inclusion is, well, inclusive.

For example, there are women who drink and men who don’t. But if the focal point of social inclusion is the local bar after work, more women than men may be excluded either because of caregiver responsibilities or because they want to avoid what they fear they may see.

Also remember that social media is a form of social inclusion and, therefore, business inclusion. Think of the message that is sent if a leader invites his male reports, but not his female reports, to connect with him on LinkedIn.

8. Help with Work/Life Management

Helping employees with the management of work and personal responsibilities is particularly important to those who are primary caregivers, whether they are involved in elder care, child care or both. While more men are (thankfully) leaning in at home, women still are more likely to have heavier burdens in this area.

To help employees manage work and personal commitments:

  • Consider whether the number of work hours you demand allows for a personal life. Individuals with heavy caregiver responsibilities may not accept “unreasonable” hours.
  • Focus primarily on the bottom line, not face time. It should not matter whether someone finishes a report between 5 and 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. and midnight. What matters is that the report is stellar and on time.
  • Be more receptive to telecommuting, at least sometimes for some positions. Yes, on that work-at-home day, personal and work responsibilities may rotate as the focus. But that may be necessary given the long hours every other day.
  • Consider offering support for child care and elder care.

9. Evaluate the Evaluators

In my experience, the evaluation process often benefits men as a result of unconscious bias. We need to evaluate the evaluators!

Again, look for “like-me” bias: “He does things the way I do things, so his method is better than others.”

Also look for weak praise (“nice” rather than “strong client relations skills”), code words (“lack of commitment” for women who are juggling work and family commitments), and double standards and criticisms that focus on the woman as opposed to her performance.

10. Include Men

Sandberg states that there is not enough male talent to serve an organization’s leadership needs. Conversely, we cannot solve the issue of gender bias by having only women focus on it. Men have valuable input, too, that must be considered.

Further, it is unfair to place the burden on women only. Women in senior management positions who are asked to focus heavily on women’s initiatives may not have the time they need to focus on their customers.

Of course, to get men involved we must do more than enlighten and invite them. We must support them, too.

This blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as applying to specific factual situations.