Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership
Photograph by David Fox — The Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership

Good leadership requires empathy beyond one’s own experiences.

By Lauren Stiller Rikleen
March 18, 2015

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: If you’re a working mom — have you experienced workplace bias? If so, how do you respond? is written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

Katherine Zaleski recently garnered national attention in her Fortune.com article by apologizing for her dismissive attitude towards working moms when she had been a childless manager. The attitude Zaleski portrayed sounded wearily familiar to many working mothers, who are often judged by fellow employees based on assumptions, not facts. After all, workplace bias is nothing new for women.

Nevertheless, Zaleski’s article reveals the destructive impact of unconscious bias in the workplace. Historically, women in the workplace have experienced prejudice and frequent acts of outright discrimination. Over time, the implementation of laws and policies, along with evolving societal attitudes, resulted in important changes. But, none of these changes have eliminated the biases that exist at the unconscious level.

Unconscious bias operates on multiple levels and even though Zaleski appears to have apologized for one, she didn’t acknowledge the others. Zaleski understood that her pre-mom success depended on conforming to a workplace model constructed when the majority of women stayed home to manage their families on a full-time basis. Zaleski’s confession to this unconscious bias clearly demonstrates why working moms are paid less, are seen as less committed, and receive fewer promotions.

But, as a business owner with a newly found public platform, Zaleski should have also recognized that good leadership requires empathy beyond one’s own experiences. Workplace bias arises when people make judgments based on only their life experiences, which is why the workplace is also an unforgiving place for employees with ill family members or those who seek greater flexibility in their lives.

Great leaders create cultures that nurture talent, even when that talent lies in employees whose life experiences are different from their own. To minimize the harmful effects of unconscious bias, leaders need to implement systems that serve as checks and balances on unfair judgments, and open lines of communications that allow for honest discussions when bias is identified. By effectively combatting these biases, people like Kelly Zaleski may no longer have to say they’re sorry.

*Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the author of You Raised Us Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: If you’re a working mom — have you experienced workplace bias? If so, how do you respond?

6 tips to help moms work smarter, not longer by Debby Hopkins, CEO at Citi Ventures.

Family vs. work? How to choose and not feel guilty by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, director of Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University.

Your boss’s late-night emails: the one time you don’t have to respond by Dawn Zier, President and CEO of Nutrisystem.

Why women will always have to work harder than men by Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Market Mentor.

Female CEO: I won’t give up my career for my kids by Penny Herscher, CEO and president of FirstRain.

Why working dads need an apology, too by Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work.

Why working moms should never have to apologize by Jane Edison Stevenson vice chairman, board and CEO services at Korn Ferry.

Working moms: Stop pretending everything is perfect by Erica Galos Alioto, vice president of Local Sales at Yelp.

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