Uprooting stereotypes that are deeply embedded in our culture is easier said than done – and HR has an important role to play in eradicating workplace sexism.
A recent social experiment highlighted just how far we have to go. A male employee at a firm in Philadelphia, US, accidentally swapped email signatures with a female colleague. According to the Daily Mail, Martin Schneider was confused by the "rude and dismissive" responses he received from clients, only to realise that it was down to them believing he was co-worker Nicole Pieri.
And calling out this bias isn’t enough, says Lila Ibrahim, Chief Operating Officer at Coursera. Over her career, she’s learnt that the best way to respond to sexism is by “[cultivating] a confident, thoughtful outlook, understand where the bias is coming from, and build and a strong support system.”
Writing in Fortune, Ibrahim explains just how to do so…
Embrace your differences
She recalls when she started at her first computer hardware job and she tried to hide her youth – and with that her personality.
However, in her next role, Ibrahim decided to embrace her differences, which subsequently helped her to progress: “I focused on the advantages that my unique background offered,” she recalls. “I asked questions fearlessly, contributed fresh ideas, and built strong relationships.
“Bias feeds on insecurity. We all have the impulse to hide our differences. But if you’re ashamed of who you are, you’re silently telling the world that you agree with stereotypes. Hold you head high and remind yourself that your differences are an asset, not a liability.”
Find the root of the bias
Ibrahim advises to address the issue, have open and honest conversations about it and move on. She recalls an experience with one colleague who didn’t treat her with respect, but once she addressed the issue, focusing on the impact it had on their work, their relationship became much more productive.
Make powerful allies
“Facing stereotypes takes courage, but you don’t have to do it alone,” Ibrahim writes. “Find allies who will give you honest feedback and sound advice. Women entering the workforce today have their pick of strong role models and mentors in almost every industry; if you’re feeling stuck, seek out someone who’s been in your shoes, and ask for their help.
“Sometimes, a few words from a strong ally is all you need. When I was working overseas, I would often hear my parents’ voices in my head, saying, ‘Lila, you deserve to be here. You’ve earned this position.’ I still repeat those words to myself in tough moments today.”