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Combating Gender Bias: Awareness, Action and Advocacy

July 2023

Executive leaders know that equitable and inclusive workplace cultures where people can bring their whole selves to work drive greater business results and increase talent retention. However, pervasive challenges such as unconscious gender bias continue to hinder progress in the workplace. As a result, women and other underrepresented groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, still face inequities that limit their sense of belonging in the workplace.

Spencer Stuart recently hosted The Band of Sisters, a group of six executive-level PepsiCo alumnae, to discuss the critical role that leaders play in nurturing a culture of inclusivity and combating gender bias by transitioning from bystander to advocate. During the conversation, the Sisters discussed how leaders can build awareness, act more inclusively and be intentional advocates.

As the saying goes, once you name it, you can tame it. To help leaders identify biased behaviors and feel more comfortable talking about them, the Sisters created terms for common micro-moments or micro-aggressions. Although seemingly small, these offenses stack up, creating an unwelcome environment and making it harder to dismantle inequities in the workplace.

Examples of micro-moments include:

  • “Lazy language.” Leaders or hiring decision-makers may say something like, “She’s not a great fit" or "She's too emotional” when discussing women candidates. This language is vague, making it easy to dismiss people and preserve homogeneous talent pools. Says Lori Tauber Marcus, former C-suite executive at Keurig Green Mountain and Peloton Interactive, and now a board director and executive coach, “As a leader, make sure you challenge this vague language before it turns unsubstantiated beliefs into facts.”
  • “Be like Bill.” Women often screen themselves out of jobs because they don’t meet 100 percent of the criteria. Dawn Hudson, former president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America and now board director, talked about her experience leading reviews for a senior team. The men generally came to her ready to talk about why they were great at their job and ask for a promotion. In contrast, the women tended to focus on where they needed to improve before they could advance. Hudson saw that her women team members had the opportunity to position themselves more confidently for future opportunities like their male peers.
  • “No invite.” Relationships at work are often built after hours during happy hours, golf outings or one-on-one dinners. Being excluded from these events can have serious implications. Research suggests that feeling ignored can be worse for physical and mental health than being harassed; it can also affect retention and overall job satisfaction. Unfortunately, women often experience these disadvantages when building their informal networks. Hudson recalls serving on a board where her male peers would often participate in a golf game after their formal meetings, but she was never invited. She eventually realized that her colleagues assumed that she would rather get home to her family than play golf (not always true!). As a result, she didn’t feel a part of the group.

Here’s the good news: "Micro-moments can be addressed with micro-actions,” says Cie Nicholson, former CMO of Pepsi and current board director. For instance, if someone says a woman is “not a great fit” for a promotion, leaders can push back and ask the person to identify the situation, behavior and impact that led them to that conclusion. Simply asking these questions may reveal there is no basis for the claim.

When leaders notice women screening themselves out of applying for a job, they can be proactive by helping team members identify their strengths and leverage them for career advancement. As Hudson says, “Don’t fall into the trap of helping guys get promoted and giving women more to work on so they’re treading water.”

When addressing issues of exclusion, leaders should observe the current slate of post-work activities and networking and consider who is being included and who is not. Is the event something that supports equal participation? “If it won’t work for everyone, then find something that will,” says Angelique Bellmer Krembs, former VP/CMO at Pepsi and BlackRock, and current CMO in Residence at A.Team.

To be sure, action and advocacy have some overlap. But being an advocate goes beyond respectfully reminding someone to refer to a team member as a "woman" not a "girl." Advocacy entails speaking up for and backing a group or person, especially when they are not in the room.

Sponsorship is an effective and powerful form of advocacy, especially for leaders responsible for identifying the next generation of talent. Research shows that sponsorship can play a significant role in helping women advance toward executive-level positions. Sponsors can introduce employees to other leaders with decision-making influence and strongly advocate for employees when they are not in the room. As Katie Lacey, former President and CEO of Crane Stationery and current board member, noted, “Mentors speak with you, sponsors speak for you.”

Of course, sponsors must also make time for reflection to ensure they are not perpetuating biases and exclusivity. Says Mitzi Short, former Pepsi Sales executive and current executive coach, “As a leader you should always scrutinize your sponsorship tree.” Questions to ask include:

  • How many people am I sponsoring?
  • Am I inclusive in who I sponsor?
  • Am I aware of the barriers in my organization and actively addressing them?

Focusing on building an inclusive internal culture allows all talent to succeed. To dive more deeply into how to become an even more inclusive leader and an effective advocate, check out the book, You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace.