10 Powerful Women Speak: The Persistence of Discrimination & the Need for Training

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I came across this short Forbes article, “The 10 Worst Stereotypes About Powerful Women” and was intrigued. What had these very successful women experienced on their way to the top?

Stereotypes are alive and kicking—and they negatively impact careers and job prospects in innumerable ways.  Christine Lagarde (IMF Chief), Halley Bock (CEO of Fierce), Jill Abramson (Executive Editor of The New York Times), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rican President) and others echoed sentiments that ripple across all our workplaces.

Some of the top stereotypes of successful women include:

  • Ice Queen
  • Single and Lonely
  • Weak (especially if they show emotion)
  • Masculine (you have to act like a man to be successful)
  • Conniving
  • A “Token”

Imagine if the women interviewed by Forbes had listened to the naysayers.

For each powerful woman who beats the odds, there is a sea of others who aren’t reaching their personal potential. They internalize these stereotypes and allow both their performance and ambition to be impacted. That’s an enormous loss for an organization.

Why Training is Essential to Eliminating Bias

Bias is a very hard thing to address—it’s not easy to change the way people think. But effective education can help people to recognize their biases and to set clear values and rules for your organization.  It is essential to train managers on stereotypes and implicit bias, not just to improve workplace culture, but to mitigate legal risk.  It’s just as unlawful to make decisions based on implicit bias as it is to do it consciously based on an expressed stereotype.

But Don’t Let Training Actually Create More Legal Risk

You must be thoughtful about how you explore this very sensitive topic with your managers (just check out the Forbes article’s comment section if you need proof).

Here’s a short list of things to avoid in your training programs—not only because they are insensitive, but also because they can create significant risk for your organization:

  • Don’t put people on the spot in live training for their “opinions.” In online training, don’t have learners submit personal comments or take a scored bias assessment.  Asking managers to share their biases with coworkers and with the organization is sure to backfire.  This kind of dialogue is very likely to impact how people on your team feel about each other, and how willing they are to work together.  Collecting data on personal opinions and scoring individual proclivity toward bias will likely amass damaging, and in most cases, un-actionable information.
  • Don’t single out women in a training session by asking them how they feel about gender bias, or if they have been mistreated at work. A live session is not the place to air these kinds of issues. And one woman cannot speak for an entire workforce of women with different ideas and perspectives.
  • Don’t just put a list of common stereotypes in front of learners and call it good. Letting people read a list of stereotypes isn’t particularly helpful and may actually reinforce biases rather than break down barriers.

Train the Right Way

When it comes to training on the subject of stereotypes and bias, the best and most effective approach is to use well-thought out scenarios and examples.  Include a significant number of interactive exercises, and provide detailed feedback on each one.  If the training is prepared properly (which is hard to do) you can actually show the behavior in a powerful way and get people thinking about how stereotypes damage individuals and the workplace.   Truly engaging learners on this topic is the only way to make any kind of meaningful progress.  Otherwise, you are simply rolling out another “check-the-box” compliance program.

At ELT we pride ourselves on creating the highest quality discrimination and harassment training based on our more than twelve years of experience, and more than 6 million employees and managers trained. Our thoughtfully developed scenarios get learners thinking about stereotypes and bias. And our online training solution means they get to do it in a safe environment, and at their own pace.


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