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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gender at work

How can we improve our professional relationships with colleagues of all genders?

Column by Emma Bjornsrud

We can take as many Implicit Association Tests as we want to try and prove to ourselves that we aren’t biased. But the fact is, we all hold biases, and they can seriously impact our relationships.

Like with all types of judgments, gender biases have the ability to control different aspects of our lives. Especially in professional settings, gender biases create power dynamics that affect relationships between colleagues.

Michelle Ceynar, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University, said we can’t help but have underlying biases in interactions with peers.

“An example I often use is that we expect women to take care of the emotional stuff, even in a workplace,” Ceynar said in a phone interview. “Women are more likely to take on those roles, and men are more likely to expect that from women. If you extend that to folks who identify as nonbinary, they’re being treated based on expectations for either their broad category of nonbinary or on assumptions based on which gender people believe them to be.”

Perceived gender roles can lead to a prejudiced imbalance of tasks assigned to professors and university faculty, adding pressure and responsibility to already hard-working individuals.

Jessica Cundiff, a professor of psychological science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, said the effects of gender imbalances also accumulate over time.

“Some people will say that women or racial and ethnic minorities are being too sensitive; they get tagged as being complainers when they experience biases,” Cundiff said in a phone interview. “But that’s an unfair judgment because you’re not seeing the larger picture. It’s not just this one instance that they’re experiencing, this is one of many instances that they’re experiencing, and that’s what’s creating the gender inequity that we see. It’s the piling up of all these small, subtle instances of bias.”

The results can be detrimental to one’s career. At the university level, everything from department meetings to course evaluations to tenure decisions, have the potential to damage the professional reputations of people of marginalized identities.

Cundiff said the skills necessary for success are incongruent to our stereotypes about gender roles.

“When a woman acts in an assertive way, or when she’s self-promoting, we say she’s really aggressive or egotistical,” Cundiff said. “But when a man does it, it’s perfectly fine. That’s called the double bind, and basically it’s a catch-22. If you don’t show these skills, you’re not going to move ahead. But if women exhibit these traits too much, then they’re labeled as being cold or not liked or bitchy. So, women have to walk a tightrope in the workplace, displaying these traits but being sure that they’re doing it in a nice way.”

Stereotypes continuously force people of marginalized identities to prove that they’re deserving of success because the gender gap persists in university settings nationwide.

Vicki Hsueh, Western’s director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, said she’s seen gender bias firsthand, right here at Western.

“A complication which I have seen a lot is that faculty of color, transgender or gender nonconforming faculty end up doing an enormous amount of mentoring and service work for other faculty and for students,” Hsueh said. “So, that becomes this burden that is a personal one, because you feel like you want to give back, but it’s often underrecognized. It’s certainly not evenly appreciated or legitimized.”

Hsueh said being open to recognizing the impacts of differential gender relationships is important for improving them.

L.K. Langley is amazing; the fact that we have an office for LGBTQ+ needs is huge,” she said. “The fact that we don’t have a comparable office for diversity — that’s something that I think the university would benefit from greatly.”

Improving our relationships despite gender biases should be a priority. Just making the effort to reduce judgments may be all it takes to develop more inclusive professional environments.

“We can’t get rid of our unconscious biases, they’re just going to be there,” Ceynar said. “The more we’re comfortable trying to interact with people on an equal level and acknowledging the mistakes we do make or granting grace when somebody makes a mistake with you, I think it will gradually improve.”

The goal isn’t to erase all our biases — that may not even be possible. The real objectives are to acknowledge our differences, celebrate diversity and allow everyone equal opportunities. 

If we don’t strive to strengthen our professional relationships, we can never reach our full potential for success.

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