What's A Girl to Do? Rise Above Bias

Coauthored by blogger's daughter Harvard University Freshman Amelia Miller

Every few years there's a new crop of theories that purport to explain why women aren't as professionally successful as men. In the seventies it was psychologist (and Radcliffe dean) Matina Horner and the "fear of success," which held that women stopped themselves from advancing out of terror that successful women ended up miserable and alone. More recently, Sheryl Sandberg took us to task us for not "leaning in" and Katty Kay and Claire Shipman told us we have a "confidence gap."

If these self-inflicted shortcomings aren't worrying enough, a seemingly endless stream of studies -- that always climb to the top of the most read and most emailed lists-- claims that we also face unconscious bias everywhere. People don't like women's voices, don't like when we're aggressive, don't think we're creative, and even view women as less competent than men with identical credentials. So it turns out, even if we're aiming high and leaning in, we're apparently still doomed.


In a world where experts insist that unconscious gender bias is pervasive, of course we should strive to make ourselves and our colleagues aware of these tendencies and take steps to correct them where we can. But until bias goes away (which will take time), you have two choices: you can resign yourself that bias will be a big obstacle to your success; or, you can look more critically at bias and see that whatever sentiment is out there, you will rise in spite of it.

We prefer the second choice. Here's how you can rise above bias:

1. Look deeper.

Read the fine print of some of the bias studies: you'll find sweeping conclusions based on small, contrived experiments. They stage activities like card tournaments, solving mazes, and science fairs to compare women and men's willingness to "compete."

But should we let games designed for psychological studies - with obviously lower stakes than a woman's career - brand us as lacking competitive drive in the workplace, where it matters? Not all studies are as convincing (and scary) as the ones that show employers prefer job candidates with male names.

Also, as Jody has said before, studies may merely be identifying the symptoms of having too few women in power, not proving that bias is the reason they aren't. For example, it may be that people would associate the sound of a woman's voice with authority if there were more women in authority. The point is don't get too hung up on every new finding of bias - there's a big market for "bias studies," but you don't have to buy into the "bias industry."

2. Don't waste energy.

Even if we stipulate that there is enormous bias, the question becomes, "what exactly am I supposed to do with this information?" One option is to try to adapt, as some girls who debated in high school with Amelia did: they not only prepared responses and practiced speeches but also drank hot tea before each debate round to lower their voices. They thought it would make them sound more persuasive - and they thought it made a difference. The extra energy could've been spent continuing to hone arguments rather than trying to change the unchangeable. Remember, Abe Lincoln had a famously high voice, and it didn't seem to hold him back.

3. Consider the big picture.

There are many successful women, not as many as there should be, but enough that whatever bias there is, it is not insurmountable. This may be a clue that there is something more at work than just bias. The bigger issue may be the rigid 24/7 way top jobs are structured. Instead of spending so much time uncovering unconscious bias which is hard to cure, we should spend more time focusing on the conscious ways we can design new paths to the top that will be more appealing to women - and men.

With all this in mind, it's clear that the real power these studies have is the power we give them -- what a girl shouldn't do is let the potential of bias become a self- fulfilling prophecy limiting her ambition.

Written by :

Jody Greenstone Miller, Co- founder and CEO, Business Talent Group
Amelia G. Miller, Harvard College Class of 2019