Fairer Economies

The 4 insidious phrases prevent the gender gap in leadership from closing

Common phrases in hiring and promotions are holding women to a narrow lane of acceptance and back from leadership.

Common phrases in hiring and promotions are holding women to a narrow lane of acceptance and back from leadership. Image: Photo by Desola Lanre-Ologun Via Unsplash

Angelique Krembs
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Fairer Economies

  • From the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, we see a “drop to the top,” i.e. where on average, representation of women in leadership drops to 25% in C-suite positions, close to half of the representation in entry-level positions, at 46%.
  • Language has long coded double standards in the workplace and allowed systemic biased practices to work against women.
  • In part three of this series from The Band of Sisters, six former executives-turned-authors-and-speakers on women’s leadership, we highlight four examples of common lazy language that prevents women from advancing into leadership and the actions to challenge it.

This summer, 2023, there is no hotter ticket than Taylor Swift's Eras Tour. With multiple Grammys and a net worth that puts her at the top of the list of female self-made millionaires, Swift is, without a doubt, a leader in the music industry.

And yet, behind the scenes, even Swift has seen a double standard in how men and women are described professionally.

Common phrases in hiring and promotions are holding women to a narrow lane of acceptance and back from leadership.
Image: Band of Sisters

“There’s a different vocabulary for men and women in the music industry," she noted in a recent interview. “A man does something; it’s strategic. A woman does the same thing; it’s calculated,” Swift says. “A man can react. A woman can only overreact.”

As female executives, our experience confirms these micro-moments of gender bias occur all the time, across a host of industries. As co-authors on a book about dismantling this bias, The Band of Sisters believe progress begins with awareness.

Have you read?

Once we notice these “little things” in workplace culture – and name them and give weight to them – we can finally act to neutralize them. Here are four examples of how.

1. ‘She’s not a good fit’

We hear this phrase in hiring meetings and in board meetings. What started as a tool to recruit happy employees has morphed into something ugly. “Fit” is not just code for whether an employee will embrace an organization but whether an organization will embrace the employee. When used by an established majority to filter out newcomers who don’t look, think or act like them, the “fit” filter becomes a barrier to diversity and inclusion.

“In most of the places I’ve worked, there has been at least the recognition that when hiring, we need to consider women and people of colour for any open role,” says Katie Lacey, former C-suite leader and current board director. “But what used to drive me crazy is when we would have an opening in my group, and the hiring managers would interview an appropriate mix of people but would then come back with the recommendation that we hire the guy that looks just like them.

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“When I would ask about the woman they interviewed, I would hear the generic ‘she wasn’t a good fit.’ I realized that it was critical to make sure the hiring team was diverse.”

The action: As you evaluate talent, we shouldn’t continue to “fit” the status quo but add to it. Challenge this phrase whenever you hear it. Use ally language such as, “Help me understand what you mean by good fit. Let’s see how that relates to the hiring criteria.”

2. ‘Susan, will you take the notes?’

There are two kinds of work in many office environments: “glamour work” and “office housework.” It’s well-documented that employers often push thankless tasks on women (like taking notes, setting up the next Zoom meeting and finding a conference room), expanding their workload without advancing them. This practice is classic unconscious bias. Even if we agree that managers aren’t intentionally burdening the women with non-promotable work, if they make excuses like “I thought she liked to plan the parties” or “but her handwriting is so good”, this is a chance to change the story.

We know a male CEO who took this to heart. In his next meeting, he noticed that of his two senior leaders, the female leader started project-managing the meeting. This CEO stopped her and said, “You know, we shouldn’t always assume that Susan will take the notes. Let’s have Joe take the notes today.” He didn’t expect how much immediate positive impact his action would have. His female leader said, “I want to tell you I’ve never felt so seen, appreciated, validated and heard. That comment you said today about me not pm’ing this project was easily the most amazing thing a male leader can do.”

The action: Even if you’re not the boss, don’t be a biased bystander; become an upstander. Pay attention to who always does the office housework. Use ally language to steer the outcome differently: “How about we rotate?” Or, “Why don’t we bring in junior James, who can take the notes and would benefit from hearing the discussion.” And eliminate the excuse that it’s because her handwriting is great.

If you’re the boss, recognize the system as penalizing for women and call it out when you see it.

Angelique Bellmer Krembs, Co-Founder, The Band of Sisters

3. ‘She’s too emotional’

In the workplace, a woman is expected to be tough but not off-putting; passionate, yet not angry; strong, not cold; nurturing but not soft; and likeable without being a doormat. She must never show anger, fear or sadness. On top of all that, she must never appear timid, cold or risk-averse. If all that sounds like a contradictory mess, it is. When emotions are expressed, women tend to attract more scrutiny and criticism and are granted a much narrower range of acceptable behaviour.

Cie Nicholson, former Chief Marketing Officer of PepsiCo and current board director, recalls when a male colleague asked her opinion on a candidate’s “strong personality” for fear, it would be out of place in their work culture. Cie pointed out that in her experience, women get unduly scrutinized for having strong personalities, while men get rewarded. The colleague was challenged to think twice about his ingoing bias.

The action: Leaders should see creating and maintaining an expressive culture as part of their mandate that can and should be cultivated. At our best, we want to minimize the reliance on stereotypes for how a leader should look or sound and not create an unfair contest between likability and competence. When you hear this vague language used to describe a woman, be the ally who says, “Help me understand – what was the situation, what was the behaviour observed and (most importantly) what was the impact?” We aspire to make room for a range of styles in effective leadership.

4. ‘He’s a great guy’

You may not be able to see it but if you listen, you can hear it – the language men use to help each other move up in the world. “Good guy” is shorthand for “he’s one of us.” The “boy’s club” is a legendary construct that allows white men to advance while women and people of colour are shut out of plum positions. In generations past, the clubs were physical spaces – colleges, smoking clubs and golf courses. Today, most clubs have dropped those restrictions but the system that advanced men remains.

Sometimes the “good guy” thing means we hold women to higher standards – like in the boardroom or the pitch room, where women endure more questions on their experience or results than their male counterparts.

Cie Nicholson also recalls hearing “Tim is a great guy” as an endorsement for a promotion in her department, which she discovered came from an after-hours pick-up basketball league. When an individual is known and liked by others, it is easier for people to support, recommend and take chances on them, which also holds true for women. But the math doesn’t work: men are in leadership positions in much higher numbers, so women are locked into a disadvantage unless someone actively levels the field.

The action: If you’re the boss, recognize the system as penalizing for women and call it out when you see it. Use ally language like “Let’s look at the evidence of her potential to stretch further” or, “Let’s ask the same questions of both the men’s and women’s credentials.”

Each of these small factors of unconscious bias seems too insignificant to mention on their own, but in total and over time they add up to a big brick wall of bias that exhausts women in the workplace. Most importantly, none of them are solved by women leaning in, out or sideways. They are solved by the well-intentioned leaders paying attention and taking action.

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