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Facebook Exec: How to Call Out Gender Bias at Work

Deb LiuDeb Liu
Deb LiuFacebook

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 Deb Liu, vice president of platform and marketplace at Facebook.

Gender stereotyping in the workplace is often unintentional and the product of unconscious bias. Each time we let stereotyping go by without calling it out, we miss the opportunity to create mutual acknowledgement of what occurred and the opportunity to address it in real time, and tacitly agree that stereotyping is okay. These missed opportunities allow gender stereotyping to persist. Fortunately, by encouraging open discussion in the workplace, we can foster a culture invested in diminishing bias.

Call bias out when you hear it

I’ve spent the past 15 years working in tech at a number of different companies. I remember one time when a coworker said of a candidate we were considering: “I don’t think she would be a good fit. She is kind of bossy.” I spoke up and said to him: “Please don’t say that. You wouldn’t use that term to describe a male candidate.”

He clarified his comment, acknowledging that I was right. “What I mean to say is that the way she communicated her ideas in the interview undermined her ability to persuade and influence.” By calling out the stereotype, he was forced to unpack what he meant, rather than falling back on a loaded gender term. This led to a clearer articulation of why he believed she would not be successful in the role.

On another occasion, a colleague told me that I ran meetings that were “gossipy.” I asked him what he meant, because he would never use the word to describe a male coworker. He replied, “What I meant to say was that your meetings are often very casual in the beginning as people are getting settled in. Everyone chats for a while. You would benefit by getting down to business faster.” He thanked me for calling him out to clarify his feedback. A year later he told me that my response was one of the most effective pieces of feedback he had ever received, because it reminded him of his unconscious bias.

In both of these cases, the stereotyping was innocuous. But pushing on the truth behind the words created a clearer conversation.


Confront gender expectations

Gender stereotyping is built into our culture and how we interact with one another, so we also see it in our workplaces. Women are considered leaders if they are warm and competent, while men can be considered leaders without being seen this way. There is a subtle, but added, tax on women based on what we expect of them. Not all women are warm, and so many would consider them less worthy of leadership. Likewise, a woman with Parent Teacher Association (PTA) on her resume is 79% less likely to get hired and is offered on average $11,000 less in salary, because people question her commitment to work, according to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Sociology.

These expectations mean that women in the workplace have the added requirements of being warm and proving they are committed to their home and work. While these expectations are difficult to overcome, we can begin the process of eliminating them by confronting and challenging them, both within ourselves and with our peers.

At Facebook, we work to build an inclusive environment through a variety of recommended internal trainings designed to encourage our employees to identify and overcome gender stereotypes. Nearly 100% of our senior leadership has taken our Managing Unconscious Bias class and over 75% of the entire company has opted to do so. Since introducing the training, I have seen a number of instances in which people interrupted active bias, calling it out on the spot.

Making implicit gender stereotypes explicit and openly confronting them takes away their power. Stereotypes have a lasting influence because they conform to our preconceived notions. Asking for a deeper level of detail and understanding pushes us to challenge those notions, which ultimately benefits us all.