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Half Day Seminar

Breaking Through Bias

Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work
Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris
A Q&A Preview with Andrea Kramer & Alton Harris,
Co-authors of Breaking Through Bias



Q: Why do you speak about biases and discrimination, and what do you hope to



A: In our book Breaking Through Bias and in our speaking engagements, we have two

fundamental objectives. The first is to convince women that despite the gender biases

they face in their careers, they can succeed without waiting for the world or their workplaces

to become more gender neutral. The second is to give women the tools – information and

communication techniques – they can use to do precisely that: succeed in the face of gender

discrimination. Our approach is fundamentally different from other advice books and speakers

because we explicitly identify gender stereotypes and the biases that flow from them as the

primary reason for the glaring gap in women’s and men’s career achievements. We want women

and men to be aware of these stereotypes, understand how they operate to slow or block

women’s career advancement, and learn how to avoid or overcome these stereotypes. By

speaking together, we believe we have offered women truly unique, helpful, and immediately actionable advice.


Q: How pervasive are gender biases and stereotypes?


A: They are everywhere. Gender stereotypes and the biases that flow from them are at work in most businesses and professions, and even in the most well-meaning organizations. The hurtful way in which these stereotypes operates was demonstrated by a 2012 Harvard Business School study. Women and men start at the business school with equal experience and academic achievements. Yet when they graduate, the women receive significantly lower grades and fewer honors than the men do. Harvard wanted to know what was going on.


The study found that women were hanging back in classroom discussions—despite participation counting for half of their grades. Women were found to be much less comfortable than the men with public “give and take,” controversy, and assertive presentations. And at graduation, the men found their Harvard experiences far more positive than did the women.


Harvard was not willing to ignore these findings. The Business School Dean identified a lack of female “inclusion” (what we might think of as a gender bias on the part of the professors and male students) as a top priority. He required all faculty to undergo training on gender issues.  The Dean instituted a system for monitoring women’s performance. And at last report, this has begun to make a difference.


But Harvard also found another – far subtler and more intractable – problem. This one directly tied to gender stereotypes. The Harvard women were found to “self-edit in the classroom to manage their out-of-classroom image.” They were holding themselves back academically. They worried that if they competed harder in class – if they behaved more like men – they would not be viewed positively. They were worried about their “likability.” They knew – consciously or unconsciously – that as men grow more successful, they are liked and admired more; as women grow more successful they are liked less. Women with successful careers are often viewed as aggressive, out of line, difficult to deal with – “bitches.”

Q: You stress the importance of impression management. How should a woman manage the impressions she makes when she takes on a leadership role in her organization or political body?


A: Women in traditionally male careers – governmental leaders, lawyers, doctors, tech entrepreneurs, fighter pilots, just about all high-status, highly financially rewarded careers – face negative stereotypes about women, family, job commitment, and leadership. The traditional female stereotype is that a woman just doesn’t have the right characteristics to be an effective leader. On the other hand, if she violates these traditional stereotypes and displays the characteristics of a leader, there is likely to be a backlash against her: something is wrong with her; she is not a nice person; she is a bitch; she is a bad mother; and she is certainly not feminine.


So, for a woman to effectively manage the impressions other people have of her, she needs to overcome this double bind, or what we call the Goldilocks Dilemma. This involves a series of steps, which we cover in Chapter 3 of our book and in our workshops.


First, she needs to monitor the conversations she has with herself – to be positive and supportive. Second, she needs to learn how to identify the impressions she is making on other people and know when she needs to “dial it up” – to be more assertive and tough – and when to “dial it down” – to be more supportive and inclusive.


When she can do these two things, there are four more things she needs to do:


  1. Seek out challenging projects and opportunities, and not hang back because these projects and opportunities are outside of her comfort zone or involve long hours or travel; speak up, not letting the men dominate the meetings and discussions.

  2. Not provide too much information about her family responsibilities, her fears, her concerns. She does not need to say she is not available for a call at 2 p.m. because she has to take care of her kids, just that she would be happy to talk any time after 5:30.

  3. Show a sense of humor: she doesn’t need to join in with men’s locker room jokes, but she does need to be a good sport with a capacity to laugh. And, when things get difficult, she needs to display a coping sense of humor to help her – and the others with her – through these difficulties.

  4. Not worry about being “likable.” She needs to be talented, willing to promote herself, and to be in the right place at the right time. She doesn’t need to be seen as nice or sweet or caring. She needs to be respected, seen as competent and inclusive of others’ ideas.


Q: You have stated that women must be noticed as “competent, confident, and capable,” while not being seen as “pushy, unpleasant, or socially insensitive.” How might women strike a balance between these seemingly conflicting objectives?


A: This is precisely what we call the Goldilocks Dilemma. Women who seek to be leaders are often seen as competent but too strident and insensitive, or likable but too soft and lacking confidence, but rarely just right. If a woman acts with authority and decisiveness, both men and women criticize her. She is seen as an aggressive bitch. If, on the other hand, a woman conforms to common female stereotypes – cautious, deferential, careful – it is as if she is announcing she is not cut out to be a leader; that she doesn’t have the right stuff.


The key to overcoming the Goldilocks Dilemma and to getting it “just right” is what we call attuned gender communication. Essentially, this means being competitive and welcoming, decisive and sensitive, authoritative and inclusive. When a woman can use both communal and agentic characteristics simultaneously, she can lead without a backlash.

Q: What do women in leadership positions in 2018 need to know about gender bias in the workplace? What are some of the most important pieces of advice you can offer to women in traditionally male-dominated elected positions and careers?


A: We have three pieces of advice. First, women leaders need to realize that as women they will face obstacles in their careers that are simply not there for men. The major reasons for this are that gender stereotypes (mostly unconscious) powerfully shape the attitudes and behaviors of the people who are the gatekeepers along their career paths – or in elected officials’ cases, the gender stereotypes shape the attitudes of the community that judges and elects the officials. Women who understand these stereotypes are in a position to avoid the biases that flow from them, work around them, or tackle them head on. We discussed this in some of our blogs covering the 2016 election, including our blog entitled “Our Gendered Election,” which can be found at


Second, because of the stereotypes that are present today, many women seek to avoid the negative reactions they believe they will face if they act too decisively, too competitively, or too strongly (similar to the women at Harvard Business School, referenced earlier). As a result, they self-edit and tone down their own competence and confidence in order to be seen as more likable. These women observe that as men grow more successful, they are liked and admired more; but as women grow more successful, they are liked less, and often viewed as aggressive and difficult. But our position is that the way to deal with this is not by holding yourself back.


Third, women need to manage the impressions they make on others by using attuned gender communication. This involves a variety of things we discuss frequently and in Breaking Through Bias, but one of them is language style. Many women grow up using a communal language style that is intended to be noncontroversial but that actually makes them appear less confident than they actually are. Many women, for example, are likely to use phrases such as:


            - “I might be wrong about this but …”

            - “This might be stupid but …”

            - “I’m sorry …”


When women speak in this tentative sort of way, the people with whom they are interacting are likely to discount their opinions and contributions. Women need to drop their tentativeness, present their ideas directly and clearly, speak up, and not worry about being liked.

Check out more from the authors at:
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