Leadership and Gender Bias

This is the third in a series of four blogs on leadership. 
Randy is an executive.  Randy notices that Kim, a manager who is also a direct report, is struggling in terms of collaborating with members of the team.  Randy asks Kim to have dinner to get to know her better with the goal being to mentor her more effectively.
Randy is also in charge of a major project that, if successful, would have resulted in an increase in gross revenues by more than 10 percent. After the team spent literally hundreds of hours working on the project, the customer cancels it.  When meeting with the team to inform them of what had happened and to thank them for their hard work, Randy sheds a few tears.
Of course, it is not an accident I used the name Randy.  It can refer to a man or a woman.  Which gender did you assume as you read each of the two examples?  What was your emotional reaction to Randy in each?
Now change your assumption as to Randy’s gender.  Please re-read the two examples.
Is your reaction the same?  Do you think it generally would be by others?
We all know that gender bias is alive and well.  But, usually, the focus is on the bias of those who lead.  Yet those who are led may have bias, too.  And that bias can hurt women and men alike, depending on the situations.
The first situation involves an attempt to mentor by first getting to know the subordinate in a more personal way. For this example, let’s remove sexual orientation as a variable and assume both individuals are heterosexual.
If Randy is a she, I believe most will assume that her asking the subordinate for dinner is for a legitimate purpose. I suggest that that assumption may be less clear if Randy is a he rather than a she. Some may suspect an ulterior motive.
In the second example, where Randy sheds some tears, if Randy is a he, I suspect he will be admired for being strong enough to show his vulnerability and how much he cares.  If Randy is a she, the response may be very different.  She may be seen as weak and overly emotional.
What does this mean for leaders?  Does this mean that we need to limit what we say or do based on the potential bias that may apply to how we are perceived?
No.  We need to connect with employees and show them our true selves.  We should be our authentic selves, but do so strategically.
In the first example, the man’s motive is more likely to be misunderstood.  But, he should not avoid the connection.  Rather, perhaps he should consider lunch rather than dinner.  And, if dinner is preferred, he should take the time to explain the business purpose and assure himself that he has done the same with men.
In the second example, to respond with no emotion to an emotional loss will result in a loss of influence.  Employees want to know their leaders care for and feel for them.  But the woman’s tears may be evaluated differently from the man’s.
So perhaps she needs to be careful to control the amount of tears and to follow-up any tears with a statement of strength, such as there will be a plan going forward to address the loss and the plan will be shared as soon as it is complete.  Let the employees see your heart and your head.
We often think about how we will achieve objective goals.  Perhaps we need to think more about how we will show our humanity in a world in which those who often claim gender bias may also display it.
The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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