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Transgender and gender bias multicoloured beads

What Trans People Teach us About Gender Bias

Gender bias is an important issue, especially in tech where we see such male-heavy teams as standard. 

It is easy not to notice gender bias. Overt gender bias has been sufficiently frowned upon to stamp it out, in most cases anyway. Where overt gender bias is expressed, society is now relatively quick and heavy-handed in dishing out justice to the offenders. 

But there is a more dangerous bias. The subconscious bias. This is so subtle that it goes unnoticed. It is so common that it has become normal. But if we want to encourage more women into tech - and we really need to - then we must tackle this covert bias. 

This covert gender bias is so entrenched that we don’t notice it. Women who call it out are dismissed as being aggressive, mean, under performers trying to hide behind sexism or just downright bitches.  

Society has an idea of what men should be, and what women should be. Anyone deviating from those idolised standards pays a heavy price. Whilst overt bias has reduced as more women entered high level education and the workplace, covert bias has remained untouched. 

In order to see this covert bias in action, the best people to look to are those who are transgender. Transgender people have a dual experience of the world. They have lived as both sexes, with every other aspect of themselves being constant: their intellect, accomplishments and work experience remains the same, but they change sex. 

What trans people routinely report about gender bias is very interesting….

gender bias through the eyes of a transgender person

Ben Barres was a Stanford professor of neuroscience. As a student, then living as a woman, his tutor set the class a highly complex mathematical problem. Ben solved it. But in the next class the tutor announced that no one had solved it. He approached the tutor and told him he had solved it. The tutor responded ‘You must have had your boyfriend solve it’. 

Later in his career whilst completing his PhD, still living as a woman, he lost out on a highly prestigious fellowship competition, to a man. Ben was told by the Harvard dean, who had read both applications, that his application was much stronger in every way (Ben had published 6 high impact papers whereas the male competitor who won had only published one). 

In middle age Ben transitioned to a man and became known as Ben Barres. He says he was taken much more seriously as a man than he ever was as a woman. At one seminar, he overheard a faculty member say ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s’. 

In contrast, at exactly the same time, a male colleague at Stanford transitioned to female, to become known as Joan Roughgarden.  She said ‘the career track is set up for men. You are assumed to be competent unless revealed otherwise’ You can speak, and people will pause and listen….You can assert. You have the authority to frame issues’. As a man, her pay had always been above average but when she transitioned to female it slipped down to the lowest 10%. She lost her seat on the University Senate Committee and found it hard to win funding for academic research, which had never previously been a problem. Perhaps most worryingly of all, she was personally attacked. So rather than criticism of her work, she faced criticism of herself as a person. She had male professors invade her stage, shout and yell at her and tell her she hadn’t read the literature. It was as though they were determinedly trying to discredit her. 

This is one of the constant threads we see in research into the gender gap. Women are attacked personally in order to undermine them. So in response to a point of logic someone will say ‘you are so controlling’ or ‘can you please let someone else speak for once’ or ‘she is so bossy’. Men do not tend to suffer the same personal attacks as standard. It is as though we undermine the woman so we do not have to engage with her logic. And it is worth adding that women treat other women worse than they treat men. This is not about men treating women badly, this is about the whole of society, men and women including, treating women badly without even realising it.

Joan also noted that, as a woman, she was interrupted all the time. That she had to learn to be grateful if she got an idea out that a man then claimed the credit for, because at least the idea had gotten out. She summarises her experience of living as both a man and a woman ‘men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise’. 

Ben Barres found himself suddenly being listened to, career taking flight, no longer being interrupted and being treated as an authority on everything he spoke about. Joan faced the exact opposite. She moved from being treated as an authority to being undermined, shouted at, ignored, belittled and personally attacked. Her professional views were no longer taken seriously. 

In both cases, the intellect, accomplishments, personality and character of both individuals was the same. The only variable was their gender. 

These experiences are common

Gender bias a repeating pattern with raspberries and blackberries in the background

It isn’t just Ben and Joan. Miriam Abelson, a sociologist, interviewed 66 female to male trans men in America. Most reported being seen as more competent, taken more seriously and having their authority questioned less. ‘A majority of the people I interviewed felt they had some kind of moment where, if they didn't already believe that sexism existed, this gave them proof’. 

Kirsten Schilt performed similar research into trans men. She found that the pay of trans women fell by nearly a third, where the pay of trans men increased. In Kirsten’s research trans men reported the following statements: 

  • ‘I used to be considered aggressive. Now I’m considered “take charge”. People say “I love your take-charge attitude” 
  • ‘When I was a woman, no matter how many facts I had, people were like, “Are you sure about that?” It’s so strange not to have to defend your positions’
  • ‘When I express an opinion now, as a man, everyone in the meeting writes it down’
  • ‘The first time I spoke up in a meeting in my newly low, quiet voice, and noticed that sudden, focused attention, I was so uncomfortable that I found myself unable to finish my sentence’

Kirsten summarises it ‘men succeed in the workplace at higher rates than women because of the gender stereotypes that privilege masculinity, not because they have greater skill or ability’.

Something about society makes an assumption that men are competent and worth listening to. There is nothing wrong with making positive assumptions. But society also makes the assumption  that women are not competent and not worth listening to. Even highly accomplished women are interrupted and minimised far more than junior men. At just 3-5 years old, boys interrupt girls twice as often as they interrupt girls interrupt boys. Parents interrupt their daughters more than their sons, creating a pattern of behaviour that boys have internalised by just 3 years old. That is what we need to change if we want positive cultures and gender balanced teams. 

The more men there are, the worse it is for women

gender bias when women predominate men become less aggressive text with birds fighting behind it

In The Silent Sex, Karpowitz and Mendelberg found that the more male dominated a team is, the worse the behaviour becomes. Where a single woman is in a room of four men, 70% of the interruptions she receives are negative. Turn it around so there are four women and one man and just 20% are negative. The study concludes that when women predominate ‘men undergo a drastic change. They become far less aggressive’. And less aggression in the workplace is better for everyone, regardless of gender.  

Gender bias and women in tech

Since tech is heavily male dominated, women in tech will be subjected to more gender bias. More interruptions, more underestimations, more questioning and more aggression than women in other careers. We need more women in tech, so we need to change this. (To find out why we need women in tech, read this article).

If we are to close the gender skills gap in tech, if we are to have gender balanced teams, then we need to tackle this. How can we do that?

  • Educate our teams about these biases: the first step in changing culture is acknowledging it and talking about it 
  • Be aware of people around you. Consider whether you inadvertently treat men differently from women. Take a mental tally of the number of times you interrupt someone - how many are men and how many are women?
  • Revisit your opinions of your team members. Is there a woman in your team you think of as aggressive, bossy, bitchy? Imagine a male colleague behaving in the same way. Consider if that would feel the same, or different. 
  • Correct behaviours when you see them. If someone interrupts a woman in a meeting, who is saying something useful, respond calmly with ‘Actually, I am really interested in hearing what Alison was about to say’. This will have a huge impact on culture change over time. 
  • Make sure meetings are chaired properly, by someone who is competent and confident at preventing interruptions. If necessary, have a no interruption rule 
  • Repeat and credit anything a woman says that is a good idea. Make sure they keep the credit for their ideas and thoughts. 
  • These techniques can be used for all under-represented groups who are treated unfairly within your team. This article focuses on gender bias, but there are many other forms of bias in the world. 

Once you start to think about this, and see the world through eyes that are newly opened to covert gender bias, you will see examples everywhere. You will start to wonder how you didn't notice it before. 

We are experts in growth. Team dynamics are one of the most important aspects of driving growth. If your company culture is toxic your business will suffer. Get culture right and your business will fly, your employees will be happier and more engaged, and innovation will become the new normal. If your culture isn’t feeling quite right, or you want to make sure that your culture is not unwittingly gender biased, contact us to see how we can help

Many thanks to Mary Ann Seighart for highlighting these issues in her book 'The Authority Gap'. 

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