March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD), when, across the globe, we celebrate the significant achievements of all women, acknowledge our unique and collective identities, and embrace our diversity.

This year, the IWD theme is #BreaktheBias, which is about imagining a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together, we can forge women’s equality. Collectively, we can all #BreaktheBias.

5 general types of gender bias in the workplace

According to Lean In, an organization dedicated to gender equality, there are 5 overarching types of biases that women face at work. These include:

  • Affinity bias – we tend to unconsciously lean towards and favour those who are more like ourselves; accordingly, it stands to reason that those who are in positions of leadership and power (often men) will tend to provide greater opportunities to men over women
  • Attribution bias – women receive less credit for their accomplishments and success than men do, and are more likely to be blamed for mistakes and failures 
  • Likeability bias – on the one hand, women are expected to be kind and accommodating (as opposed to being too aggressive, “bossy,” or overbearing); on the other hand, if they’re too likeable (or too nice and accommodating), they’re seen as not strong or assertive enough to take on certain roles or tasks 
  • Maternal bias – despite legislation meant to protect them, women with young children or those planning a family/adding to their family, are often passed over for opportunities with the assumption that they won’t be as committed, they won’t stay, or they won’t come back after parental leave
  • Performance bias – employers and recruiters tend to underestimate women’s performance and skill level, whereas they overestimate that of men

Examples of how gender bias shows up at work

The various biases stack up, intersect, and show up in a variety of ways for women:

  • Lack of opportunities for positions and promotions
  • Unequal pay for equal work
  • Having to navigate family status/plans in the hiring process – often done in furtive (yet still obvious) ways, to avoid liability
  • Positional bias that assumes women can’t handle certain responsibilities and situations (e.g., heavy workload, long hours, physically demanding tasks)
  • Exposure to inappropriate language and actions in traditionally male dominated industries
  • Double discrimination as a result of intersecting identities (race, LGBTQ2S+ status, etc.)

For statistics related to pay inequity, and other impacts in the workplace – in addition to how to address and help prevent gender bias in your workplace – refer to our former posts.

How employers can acknowledge and honour International Women’s Day

There are many ways that employers can acknowledge women’s day, and we encourage you to do so. That said, when it’s employer-driven, it needs to align with your organizational culture and values – and be genuine. As with any equity-supporting initiative, there must be true buy-in at the leadership level. This includes a commitment to model and carry out expectations and hold one another (including managers/teams) accountable. A simple policy is not enough to drive behaviour if it’s not backed up with action and accountability. Accordingly, a token approach will be seen for what it is.

As an example, Canadian healthcare employer, Organon, intends to give all of its employees IWD off to reflect upon themselves/the women in their lives, particularly in light of the pandemic and its impact on women’s health. While this may well fit for this particular organization, given their focus on health, there’s no way of telling whether the average employee will use the day in the spirit in which it’s intended. Of course, the same could be said of many holidays. While that’s not a reason not to do it, ideally this sort of action is prefaced with, or better yet, followed by some kind of project or sharing opportunity where the reflection is then applied. This could be done, for example, in line with IWD theme and how it fits with your organization’s values. Not only would that make for a powerful teambuilding event, but also promote real and lasting change within your organization.

Finally, breaking gender bias must extend well beyond March 8th. While IWD provides a great opportunity to acknowledge and launch gender equity action, the real work is about changing the systems that are creating barriers for women in your workplace.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can work with you to #BreaktheBias