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Though hurtful, positive stereotypes aren’t the worst.

By Lindsay Pattison
May 9, 2017

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How can women respond to gender stereotyping at work?” is written by Lindsay Pattison, global CEO of Maxus.

Gender stereotyping can still be rife in many work environments. In my own industry, advertising, it doesn’t seem to be an issue at the entry level, where women make up 41% of the workforce and start out with equitable pay and opportunities. But when we look at the numbers across senior levels, women are massively under-represented. According to a study by AWNY, they only hold 25% of leadership positions, making it clear that men are being favored over women in terms of compensation and hiring at an executive level.

So, what are the stereotypes that may be linked to this inequality? Also, given that the topic of gender equality has come to the forefront at many companies, what can we do to ensure that women change outdated stereotypical behaviour — both theirs and ours — to work towards a more equal work environment?

Don’t hold yourself back.

Let’s start internally. Women are naturally more collaborative; we are good at building consensus and seeing both sides. I can play peacekeeper at times, but this skill is often ignored or undervalued, and so we must learn to stand out in front and lead. Step up, lean in, have a voice! If you are asked to do something rear facing, like taking notes – a task that tends to be stereotypically female – don’t just say yes. Find workarounds, like delegating the task before you get asked, or offering to take turns. Feminism is about equality, not superiority, after all.

In today’s world, collaboration is key. We need leaders. We need to hear more diverse voices. You shouldn’t focus only on being a good team player. It may get you a pat on the back, but it won’t ensure that you get the chance to shine and lead.

Deal with situations as they come with nuance and strength.

Think about each situation before you act. Know when to call out rude and sexist language, or when to let it pass with a raised eyebrow or a witty remark. Try not to assume the worst – sometimes men make mistakes with clumsy language. But be cognizant of when they deliberately try to assert themselves. Figure out the difference and respond accordingly. I sit on a board where I’m the only female and I am happy to say ‘that’s completely out of order’ or ‘please, seriously, get with the 21st century’ – neatly showing those who commented that they are not only sexist, but old-fashioned in their comments. Other times a grimace, an eye roll, and a polite smile can be just as effective.

However, in a deliberate scenario you need to do much more. Make a note of the incident, specify date and time and note who witnessed it. If you need to discuss the matter with HR, come prepared with evidence.

Love your womanhood, and show how it’s done.

Let’s celebrate being women. It’s important to accentuate our differences and the positive aspects of being female, setting the tone and standards that show better ways of behaving. Always be sure to recognize and acknowledge others’ perspectives, use names to refer back to good points and invite others into a discussion. Don’t wait to speak meekly, but also don’t ‘manterrupt.’ Find a balance where you feel that your voice is heard but others’ aren’t drowned out.

In order to avoid gender bias, don’t be part of the problem.

Another helpful tip is to take unconscious bias training. Many times it has been found that women can have as much bias against other women as men do, and we can be biased against men as well. If your company doesn’t offer unconscious bias training, suggest they do or find a free online course and be proactive (there is a free one on Facebook).

In order to solve this problem that impacts so many, we must look internally and change what we do, to call out the stereotyping externally. We must do so with nuance, charm, and judgment – for it is rarely black and white. We can all develop best practices to alter our workplaces for the better. We must remember that equality is the goal – more diverse voices create better business solutions, and we should use our collaborative abilities to work together to make change. Because if we work together, we can do anything.

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