Do This the Next Time You Notice Sexism at Work

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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 Lila Ibrahim, chief operating officer at Coursera.

When I began my career as a computer hardware engineer in the 1990s, I stood out. I was not only a woman in a male-dominated field, but also at least a decade younger than most of my colleagues. I had to confront stereotypes about my gender and my age, often in the span of a single conversation.

I learned then, and continue to be reminded today, that just calling out bias isn’t enough. Stereotypes are deeply rooted in our culture; pruning them helps, but to make real progress, we need to dig deeper. If you see bias playing out around you, try not to default to knee-jerk reactions. Instead, cultivate a confident, thoughtful outlook, understand where the bias is coming from, and build a strong support system.

Embrace your differences

When I started that first computer hardware job, I tried to hide my youth. I pulled my wild, curly hair into a tight bun, wore fake glasses, purged my desk of personal photos, and smiled as little as possible. But burying my personality under a facade of adulthood (or what I thought was adulthood) made me miserable—and it didn’t work. I still had to respond to snide comments like, “Have you graduated from high school?”

Later in my career, I took a job in Intel’s consumer division in Japan. As a young American woman in a foreign country, I couldn’t avoid standing out. But this time, I embraced it. I knew I was valuable to the division, and instead of focusing on why I was the oddball, I focused on the advantages that my unique background offered. 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

To move beyond bias, we need to recognize it even when it’s subtle and confront it in ways that invite honest, factual conversation.

For example, I once had a colleague who didn’t treat me with respect, given our relative positions in the company and my responsibilities on our shared projects. I sensed that his behavior was due to some unconscious gender bias. When I addressed the issue with him, I focused on the impact that it was having on our work. We had a good conversation, and I was able to clarify my role and the support that I needed from him to do my job well. From then on, our relationship became much more productive.

On another occasion, I had a coworker sit me down during my first week in a new job and question my judgment. The conversation felt combative, but I worked hard to probe the reasons for their concern. Once I looked past the tone of the interaction, I realized that some of their feedback was honest and practical—even if it was hard to hear. Listening to what they said, rather than how they said it, ultimately helped me improve my work.

Make powerful allies

Facing stereotypes takes courage, but you don’t have to do it alone. 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.

To all the women—and men—who are confronting stereotypes and working to make them a thing of the past: You deserve to be here. Embrace your unique strengths, keep having the hard and important conversations, and know that many people are cheering you on.

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