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4 common patterns of bias that women face at work--and how you can correct them

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Joan Williams

Joan Williams. Photo By Earnie Grafton.

There’s no shortage of discussion about lack of diversity in the workplace, especially the legal profession. But solutions to the diversity problem and ways to combat implicit bias are harder to come by.

Joan C. Williams, a feminist legal scholar based at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, wrote with her daughter, Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work. In the process they identified four primary bias patterns experienced by 96 percent of the women they studied.

After identifying the bias patterns that hold women back in their chosen professions, Williams came up with what she calls “bias interrupters”—ways that managers and colleagues can more quickly spot bias and take simple corrective steps.

Williams spoke during an inaugural “GOOD Guys” program, “Why GOOD Guys—Guys Overcoming Obstacles to Diversity—Are So Important,” sponsored by the Commission on Women in the Profession. The women’s commission and the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations honored men who help mentor and support the advancement of their female colleagues.

The groups also released the Good Guys Toolkit for individuals and organizations to use to deal with bias in the legal workplace.


Williams outlined four bias patterns women may recognize:

Prove-It-Again: Women (and minorities) having to prove time and again that they are competent.

Tightrope: Balancing the push to be masculine against the expectation that women should be feminine.

Maternal Wall: Using family commitments as a reason to hold women back.

Tug of War: Facing a loyalty test, or pressure to identify with their gender or a certain group in order to succeed.

To combat bias in each of these patterns, Williams developed common scenarios that managers or colleagues may face with example responses that could correct the issue.

For Prove-It-Again, Williams used the example of origination credit. A woman may come up with an idea in a meeting, but the idea is ignored. When repeated by a man, it is perceived as brilliant. Astute managers or colleagues could correct the bias by saying, “I’ve been pondering that ever since Pam first said it,” giving credit where credit is due.

When becoming aware of a Tightrope situation, a manager or colleague may see that women in a department are held responsible for items such as the housework of planning parties, meeting-planning logistics, staffing and billing, or note-taking. To correct the issues, the manager would not ask for volunteers for party planning because women are under pressure to accept and men to decline. Other tactics include:

• Assigning support personnel to handle meeting planning.

• Establishing a rotation for tasks such as note-taking.

• Having each person do his or her own billing.

Maternal Wall issues may come up when a manager hears someone express uncertainty that a woman can do a task because of her child care issues. One possible response would be to call out the bias directly: “I wonder if we’d say the same thing about a man.”

In the last example, Tug of War, Williams suggested looking out for tokenism and making sure that there isn’t a pattern of having one woman on a committee or team.

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