By Tom Henschel

Arden Executive Coaching | GENDER BIAS IN EXECUTIVES

Women not supporting women

Graham was fuming. “I can’t believe the leadership committee isn’t going to support Maria José’s promotion!”

Maria José was Graham’s right-hand. Having coached Graham for some time, I knew her to be a dedicated high-performer: thorough, loyal and self-effacing.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Graham continued. “I think they’re going to give the slot to Brian.”

“You don’t think he deserves it?” I asked. I knew Brian to be energetic and bursting with ideas.

“I just don’t think it’s his turn! What burns me up is that there are three women on the leadership committee. Wouldn’t you think they’d want to promote a woman instead of a man?”

“I hate to tell you, Graham, but if Brad gets the promotion, it’ll support all the research. Studies say that, in the workplace, the behaviors that get rewarded most often are ones we traditionally identify with men – being confident and slightly entitled – and not the behaviors traditionally associated with women – being agreeable and slightly hesitant.”

“But what about the women on the committee?”

“Nope! Studies show even women prefer ‘male’ behaviors. What to hear a jaw-dropper?”

He winced. “If I have to.”

“A business school asked men and women to rank the performance of CEOs who were ‘talkative.’ When the talkative executive was male, he got ranked high. When the talkative executive was female — talking the exact same amount! — she was ranked low. Even by the women.”

“That’s insane!” he said.

Coaching for boldness

“That’s bias,” I replied. “It’s not conscious. And it’s not mean-spirited. But it’s real.”

“Then how can I help Maria José look more like Brian? Oh. Wait. Do I even want that?”

“I don’t know. Do you?”

He thought for a minute, then said, “In our staff meetings, Maria José still raises her hand when she wants to talk.”

“Why did that come to mind?”

“Because Brian would never do that. No one does that. Not even the other women! But she does. So do I want her to act more like Brian? Well, I don’t know, but I’d like her to stop raising her hand.”

“You’d like her to be bolder,” I suggested.

“I would. And I’ve been coaching her towards that. And she’s getting better. A little. I’ve been asking her to speak up sooner, too.”

“And does she?”

“Yes. A little.”

“Well, that’s great coaching, Graham,” I said admiringly.

“Is it?”

“Yes. That sort of specific behavioral feedback is exactly what Maria José – or any woman – needs to build her confidence. And she needs one other thing, too.”

“What’s that?” he asked intently.

“Feedback about when she does it right. Women worry more than men. So if she speaks up in a meeting – or does anything that might feel like a stretch – it’s likely she’ll worry about it.”

He nodded. “I can imagine her doing that.”

“It’s documented, Graham. Women worry about stuff that men don’t. Which is why it might be hard for you to give her a pat on the back. To you it might seem obvious or trivial.”

“If that’s what it takes, I’m in,” he said.

I sent Graham a copy of  the book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, by Katty Kaye & Claire Shipman.   He shared it with Maria José. They both gained an understanding that, yes, gender bias is real, and each individual can make a difference. Graham gained ideas about how to coach Maria José. And he adjusted how he related to his wife and daughter. Maria José gained ideas about how to be bolder. And worry less. Wins all around!


If you or someone on your team could use a burst of boldness, talk with Tom about how to coach them toward a new approach!