SWE Blog: Combatting Professional Bias

After attending the 2018 SWE annual conference, Anurima Sharma shares ways to fight gender bias in the workplace.

Anurima Sharma
Anurima Sharma, VP External for the WashU chapter of SWE, at the organization's annual conference in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy WashU SWE
Earlier this semester, the Washington University in St. Louis chapter of the Society of Women Engineers attended the organization's annual conference in Minneapolis. As part of this series, select members share lessons they learned that they feel could benefit the entire engineering community.

After attending the Society of Women Engineers National Conference in 2017, I was thoroughly moved by the disheartening stories of bias and discrimination shared by so many women. I also heard accounts from women who chose to leave certain jobs or institutions as they refused to be complaisant in sexist behavior. These stories were all a combination of moving, saddening and empowering, but I could not help but wonder what could be done other than ignoring the bias and working to excel despite it, or leaving the institution in its totality. Both of these “solutions” felt like extremes, but I did not know what the middle ground would consist of.

I left the 2017 conference with no answers to this confusion, but was eager to continue discourse around this topic at the SWE National Conference in 2018. In this vein, I attended a talk titled “How to Combat Subtle Bias in the Workplace” in the hopes of finding some answers to all the questions I had been pondering for the past year.

This talk was based on data from two climate control studies, one conducted in the United States and one in India. This study looked at the experiences of women and people of color in the engineering workplace. It was also rooted in the idea that small, individual change is necessary while we wait for large-scale, systematic changes to take place. The goal of this presentation was to give the audience members a better understanding of the common types of biases present in the engineering workforce environment, and also equip the attendees with tangible actions in order to begin combatting this bias in a professional and respectful manner.

Tightrope Bias

Firstly, tightrope bias was discussed, which is the idea of being confined to stereotypes associated with one’s identities. This bias often manifests in women being expected to act unassertively; for example, when a woman does assert herself, it is looked at as rude and unprofessional. Another manifestation is that men are much more likely to interrupt women than vice versa. A woman interrupting a man can be seen as abrasive, but men interrupting women undermines the intelligence and capability of a female employee. Finally, these studies also found that women are more likely to be asked to do “office housework” (such as planning parties, ordering supplies, etc.), which can reduce their access to work that will benefit the company’s progress and help them be promoted.

One way women can begin combatting this type of bias is to set up a rotating schedule for office housework so everyone is accountable for these types of responsibilities. Also, if there is a male employee that often interrupts a woman, that woman could begin to step on the back of that man’s sentences to show that they are keeping up with the discussion and have relevant additions of their own. The final tip given to address tightrope bias was “Gender Judo,” or the idea of acting within the confines of the womanly stereotype 95 percent of the time, so that when a woman does assert herself she is not labeled as aggressive or unprofessional.

Prove-It-Again Bias

The second form of bias many women face in the engineering workplace is Prove-It-Again bias, which is when marginalized groups have to work twice as hard to be considered competent. This bias can come in the form of a man getting credit for a specific idea proposed by a woman or ideas being better received overall when proposed by a man.

If someone notices an idea that was proposed originally by a woman being better received when proposed a second time by a man, they could say something along the lines of, “I have been thinking about that idea since Person X said it. Person Y, you added great new insights. Maybe the two of you could work together to make this happen.” Recognizing that the woman was the initial one to suggest the idea helps keep the man from getting sole praise for it and potentially allows the woman the ability to make her an idea a reality.

Another form of Prove-It-Again bias is that women are more likely to be judged by their past performance when being considered for a job or promotion, whereas men are more likely to be judged by their potential. By this logic, in the case of a man and woman candidate of equal qualifications, the man will always seem like the better hire. If ever in the position to hire or promote someone, strive to ensure all candidates are being ranked on equal grounds.

Maternal Wall Bias

The third type of bias discussed is Maternal Wall bias, which refers to the limitations put on women due to having children or having the potential to have children. The aforementioned studies found that young women were 71 percent less likely to be hired than their male counterpart. Part of the reason why has to do with the potential for women to leave work due to children.

Furthermore, if a woman does have a child, they are often less likely to ask for flexibility at work as they feel they have already taken enough time off for maternity leave. This logic is flawed as men also take paternity leave, and, therefore, both men and women should feel equally confident in asking for extra accommodations due to parenthood. It is also common for new mothers to not be considered for travel opportunities. New mothers interested in traveling should explicitly say so in order to dispel this preconception.

Tug-of-War Bias

Finally, this talk discussed Tug-of-War Bias, which is the idea that women success is a zero-sum game. It is possible for a woman to feel tokenized in the workplace and worry that other women joining the company could threaten their own job, as they are no longer needed for gender diversity. This feeling can manifest in women not sponsoring or mentoring other women, which is the opposite of what women should be doing for one another. A common way in which this bias is seen is when women dissociate from their womanhood by saying things such as, “I am not a woman engineer; I am a WashU engineer.” Pushing away from the woman label reinforces the idea that women are less capable or qualified engineers. Instead, women should embrace the intersection of their gender and career. “I am a woman WashU engineer.”

While none of these proposed solutions solve the problem of bias in the workplace, they begin to push against common forms of bias and attempt to limit them from inhibiting a woman from excelling. Upon further reflection, I also realized these types of biases are present in the classroom and WashU setting, as well. If we can all work to begin undermining intentional and unintentional discriminatory actions and behavior both in the workplace and in academic settings, we can make space for more systematic change that can make the engineering realm a fairer and more accepting space for women.