International Women’s Day is March 8. This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias, which is something we think about a lot at Lean In.
You can’t talk about bias without addressing the deeply biased systems that hold women back. Women do over half of the world’s work, and a majority of all domestic labor, but own only a third of the world’s wealth. Women, and especially women of color, are paid markedly less than white men for similar work—and most economists agree that this gender pay gap exists even when you control for factors like education, experience, and industry.
Bias also has a material impact on women’s day-to-day work experiences. Women are less likely than men to get the first critical promotion to manager and, as a result, are less likely to advance to senior leadership. Women are more likely to have their competence challenged and their leadership skills questioned. And on top of all this, women with traditionally marginalized identities are often on the receiving end of disrespectful comments, such as hearing surprise at their language skills. All of this makes work more stressful for women and makes it harder for women to do their jobs.
To break the cycle of bias that holds women back, we need to change the culture of work. That means we need all employees, at all levels, to know how to avoid and challenge biased behavior, and how to practice allyship. Creating a culture where all women feel supported and valued at work requires getting both of these critical pieces right.
We have work to do on both fronts. Right now, we see two concerning gaps in our research. Although 73% of women experience everyday bias at work, only 22% of employees say they see biased behavior in their organization—and those who do rarely speak up. And while 77% of white employees consider themselves allies to women of color at work, relatively few are taking action. Only about 30% of white employees take a public stand to support racial equity, and just 10% mentor or sponsor a woman of color.
That’s where Lean In’s programs come in. 50 Ways to Fight Bias takes the guesswork out of identifying and challenging bias. The program has grown to include over 100 intersectional examples of bias with specific recommendations for what employees can say and do. Allyship at Work teaches employees to recognize their privilege and introduces them to research-backed steps they can take to show up as allies. Together, these two programs demystify big ideas and give employees the practical tools they need to step up as change agents.
Take meetings, for example—something that happens every day. It is important to speak up when a woman is interrupted, has her idea co-opted by a coworker, or has her judgment unfairly questioned. But challenging bias in the moment isn’t enough. Employees also need to take proactive steps to make meetings more inclusive. This starts with making sure the right people are invited to meetings, with an eye toward including diverse perspectives. It also means making sure everyone’s ideas are heard—for example, by structuring meetings so everyone gets to speak or creating opportunities to contribute via chat or email.
Many of the steps we recommend in 50 Ways to Fight Bias and Allyship at Work are simple. But they can have a huge impact. When employees take meaningful action, it doesn’t just help one colleague at a time. It creates a ripple effect in organizations by inspiring other people to step up as change agents, too. And research shows that companies can only realize the full benefits of diversity—happier teams, greater innovation, higher profits—when all women, and all employees, feel respected and valued at work.
To explore more of our research:
– Read our 2021 Women in the Workplace report—a close look at the impact of the pandemic on women and the experiences of women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, and women with disabilities at work.
– Read our 2019 Women in the Workplace report—a must-read on the state of women in corporate workplaces and how to move the dial.
Special thanks to McKinsey & Company, our research partners for Women in the Workplace