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Calling Out Covert Bias in the Boardroom

Meeting room, five people around a meeting table

In the high-stakes environment of executive committees and direction teams, every voice should be heard and valued. However, women in these roles often face the subtle sting of unconscious bias and the banalization of their input during meetings. It's a pervasive issue that can undermine not only the contributions of women leaders but also the decision-making process as a whole.

Recognizing the Signs

Often labeled as "microaggressions", these biases can be difficult to name yet poisonous to advancement if left unaddressed. Here are some signs or sypmtoms that may sound familiar:

  1. Overlooked Contributions: If your suggestions are consistently ignored or only acknowledged when reiterated by a male colleague, this is a red flag.

  2. Interruptions: Keep track of how often you are interrupted compared to your male peers. Frequent interruptions can be a sign of disrespect for your input.

  3. Attribution Errors: When your successful ideas are attributed to others, it's an indication that your contributions are not being properly recognized.

  4. Lack of Eye Contact: If you notice that during your presentations or when you speak, colleagues are not engaging with eye contact, it may reflect a lack of regard for your position.

  5. Tokenism: Being asked for your opinion only on stereotypically 'female' topics or to represent a 'woman's point of view' can be a subtle form of bias.

Impact of Subtle Bias on Women in Leadership

Subtle bias in meetings can have significant consequences for women in leadership positions. It can:

  1. Erode Confidence: Continuously facing subtle bias can make women feel like they don't belong in leadership positions, leading to self-doubt and erosion of confidence.

  2. Limit Participation: Women may be less likely to participate in meetings or share their ideas when they feel their contributions won't be valued or recognized.

  3. Affect Career Advancement: Subtle bias can hinder career advancement opportunities for women, as they may be perceived as less competent or less committed to their work.

  4. Create a Toxic Work Environment: Subtle bias can contribute to a toxic work environment, where women feel undervalued, unheard, and unsupported.

Addressing the Issue

The first step in overcoming this hurdle is recognizing it for what it is - a bias, not a reflection of your qualifications. Here are some tips to address the issue:

  1. Call It Out: When you notice bias, address it calmly and directly. Use "I" statements to express how the action affects you and the meeting's effectiveness.

  2. Build Alliances: Before the meeting, discuss your ideas with colleagues who can support you during the discussion. Their backing can amplify your voice.

  3. Establish Ground Rules: Advocate for meeting guidelines that ensure everyone's ideas are heard and credited appropriately, such as a 'no interruption' rule.

  4. Seek Feedback: After meetings, ask for honest feedback from trusted colleagues on how your contributions are perceived and how you can enhance your impact.

  5. Lead by Example: Model the behavior you want to see. Give credit where it's due, engage with everyone's ideas, and discourage interruptions.

  6. Training and Workshops: Encourage your organization to invest in unconscious bias training that includes scenarios specific to meeting dynamics.

  7. Mentorship and Sponsorship: Seek out mentors and sponsors who can provide guidance and advocate for you within the organization.

  8. Document Your Contributions: Keep a record of your ideas and contributions, and refer back to them as necessary to ensure they are acknowledged.

  9. Positioning: Literally and figuratively, position yourself where you cannot be ignored. Sit at the center of the table and speak confidently.

  10. Follow-Up: If your idea is overlooked, follow up after the meeting with a well-crafted email reiterating your points and the value they add.

In Conclusion

The road to a bias-free workplace is long, but recognizing and addressing subtle biases in meetings is a step in the right direction. By taking these actions, women in executive roles can begin to shift the dynamics, ensuring their voices are heard and valued equally.

Change often starts with the courage to speak up and the resilience to keep the conversation going. Remember, you're not alone. Many women face the same challenges in the workplace. By speaking up and working together, we can create a more inclusive workplace for everyone.

Join the Conversation

Your experiences and insights are invaluable to this discussion. Have you encountered similar challenges in your meetings? How have you addressed them? Share your stories and strategies in the comments below. By engaging with each other, we can collectively develop more robust solutions and foster a more inclusive environment for all leaders. Your voice matters—let's hear it.


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