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Break the Bias when Working Remotely

By Tracy Tsai, ACC, CPC – Leadership and Career Coach

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Break the Bias.” At Her New Standard, this theme is central to our mission to advance women’s leadership. We’ve previously written about how unconscious biases can negatively impact organizational performance. In this blog, we examine how the virtual environment can amplify gender biases against women.

While remote work has its benefits, the virtual environment can result in women experiencing greater bias. In virtual meetings, women often find themselves being talked over, interrupted, or ignored. Women also continue to carry the bulk of the domestic burden, which can lead to assumptions about a woman’s priorities or ability to advance into leadership roles. And as companies begin to move towards hybrid work models, women who choose to work remotely may be unfairly penalized for choosing that option.

It’s also interesting to note that company leaders and employees tend to have differences in perception of how inclusive a company is while working remotely. A survey by Catalyst shows that while leaders believe that working remotely has facilitated a more inclusive environment, employees tend to be less optimistic. When asked the question “Is your employer addressing the inequalities highlighted by the pandemic, such as racial and ethnic disparities?,” 65% of business leaders said yes, versus 44% of employees. In addition, business leaders are also more likely to believe that their company is taking steps to enhance gender equity (56%) as compared with employees (34%).

So what can companies do to #BreaktheBias in virtual environments? It starts with company leadership. Ensure that your organization has clearly communicated company goals, actions, and commitments regarding inclusivity at all levels. According to Harvard Business Review, what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included. It’s no surprise that leaders play a pivotal role in creating a more inclusive workplace for all employees, whether they’re in-person or remote.

Here are some actions managers can take to advance equity for women in the workplace.

1. Make Virtual Meetings More Inclusive

Women are more likely than men to feel ignored and overlooked by colleagues during video calls. Forty-five percent of women in leadership roles say it is difficult for women to “speak up” in virtual meetings, and 42% of men in leadership roles agree with that observation. Virtual meeting technology and the technical difficulties that come with it, such as delayed audio, can make it harder for a less assertive individual to be heard. The larger the meeting size, the more the conversation tends to be dominated by a few individuals, making it even more difficult to contribute. It’s also easier for colleagues to accidentally speak over each other as compared to in-person meetings.

In virtual meetings, managers often don’t have the ability to read body language, so it’s important to ensure that all team members have a chance to participate. An easy way to do this is to go around the virtual room and ask each person to weigh in on a decision or idea. You can also say, “Let’s hear from those who haven’t had a chance to contribute” then ask those who have been quiet to add their thoughts. In addition, during one-on-one meetings with women on your team, ask if they feel like they are being heard, and if not, discuss how to best provide opportunities for them to speak up.

Sending out meeting materials and information in advance of a meeting can also be helpful, as this gives all team members–especially introverts who don’t do their best thinking out loud–the opportunity to formulate thoughts and chime in. Enabling the chat function during meetings also provides an equal-access forum for asking questions or sharing thoughts.

2. Acknowledge the “Unpaid Labor” That Women Take On

In the pandemic-era of remote work, women are more likely to carry out household responsibilities than men. A survey by Catalyst showed that one in three men claim to have taken on more household chores during the pandemic, but only 13% of women agree. Women are also twice as likely to be primarily responsible for their children’s homeschooling, compared to 24% of fathers.

Working mothers face more bias and barriers than fathers and women overall, and when they are the only woman in a group, their experience is even more difficult. Mothers of young children are almost twice as likely as fathers to worry that working from home or working flexible hours will hurt their career. It’s no wonder that working moms are suffering from burnout, with one-third of them contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

Remote work has now made the formerly invisible domestic labor much more visible, which can exacerbate existing biases against working mothers. Because women take on more domestic responsibilities, they are more likely than men to join a virtual meeting with their children present, or need to take time out during the workday to deal with childcare or household issues. Virtual meetings lower the barrier between work and personal lives, which could lead to assumptions about a woman’s productivity or her priorities.

By acknowledging this at the organizational level and proactively addressing it, leaders can help prevent further unconscious bias from occurring. Be mindful of the ways that existing policies or norms can create expectations that are prohibitive to women. For example, the traditional “9-5” work structure can be counterproductive for women with children, as it does not line up with school drop-off and pick-up schedules. Expectations that employees need to be working during this entire duration puts pressure on women who are juggling more responsibilities at home than men. Consider creating policies that allow flexible work, and more importantly, cultivate a culture where flexibility is not stigmatized, so that those who choose it will not be judged unfairly. Companies can also examine whether their performance evaluation process can introduce implicit bias. For instance, assessments that are too open-ended or don’t use a consistent methodology can lead to potentially biased reviews. Recognize that crises affect employees differently, so show compassion and work together to create solutions that allow her to meet both her professional and personal responsibilities.

3. Communication is Key to Building Trust and Combating Bias

Working remotely can make it more difficult for employees to build rapport and understanding with one another. Managers can help by clearly communicating and frequently reiterating the team’s common goals, as well as how each team member contributes to these goals. Leaders can also intentionally create opportunities and space for the team to talk about non-work related topics–a virtual “water cooler”- which can lead to increased understanding and empathy for each other.

Fostering an inclusive team environment where team members feel safe speaking up and sharing about themselves can also help reduce bias. Managers can model this behavior by sharing work-life issues that are affecting them, encouraging team members to do the same, and making time to check in about team members’ well-being one-on-one.

On the flip side of this, it’s also important for managers to establish boundaries around communication for your team. Technology can create an “always on” working environment that can lead to employee burnout, so establish healthy working norms for virtual communication and collaboration. This can also reduce the opportunity for implicit biases to arise against women who may have limited availability at certain times of the day.

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4. Be Conscious of How Hybrid Work Models Can Introduce Bias

As more companies move to a combination of remote and on-site work, it’s important to recognize how this shift might impact existing pay discrepancies between the genders. A study by Harvard Business Review found that remote employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion compared to their colleagues working in the office. Another study found that men who worked remotely received a pay increase twice as often as women remote workers, at a rate of 26% compared to 13%. And given that women with children are twice as likely to prefer working from home than men, this trend threatens to worsen an already concerning gender gap.

Leaders must ensure that women who choose to work remotely have the same opportunities for advancement and visibility as those who work on-site. Managers should strive to create an inclusive environment that gives all employees, regardless of where or how they work, equal access to opportunities. One way to do this is to give remote employees stretch assignments and high visibility roles, similar to those offered to employees at the office.

Employers should also commit to identifying and investigating any signs of inequity–for example, women being passed over for promotions for reasons unrelated to work performance and potential. Organizations should also review their remote and hybrid work policies to look for implicit bias. Importantly, leaders have a role in creating a culture where equity is expected, regardless of work status or location, and modeling that in their leadership behavior.

5. Set Clear Individual Goals and Check in Frequently

When working remotely, it is especially important for managers to help individuals identify and set clear and measurable goals. Getting to know each team member and their specific needs is critical, so schedule regular check-ins to ask what support they might need. Pay attention to the experience of women, especially those with caregiving responsibilities at home. Give frequent and specific feedback, making sure to discuss any performance issues as soon as they arise.

If expectations are clear and needs are well-defined, it will be easier for a manager to meet the employee where they are and for the employee to work in a way that allows them to achieve their goals effectively. Frequent check-ins also allow managers to spot early signs of issues stemming from bias and take action to swiftly remedy the problems.

Companies’ increasing commitment to permanent remote or hybrid work schedules comes with many benefits. However, it also presents some challenges, especially for women with children. Understanding how women were disproportionately impacted by the global pandemic can help employers develop practices for remote work that decrease disparity. Acknowledging gender bias in remote work environments and identifying new strategies for supporting women’s advancement (regardless of where they work) will be integral to these efforts.

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