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Leaning in to discussions about gender at work – a risk and responsibility

Does your Human Resources department coach your managers to shush-up or speak out regarding gender issues and gender biases in your company?

HR departments can sometimes be all about managing the risk of human rights claims and litigation possibilities. This often results in policies that coach managers to not ask any questions relating to gender or even questions what could be construed as relating to gender. After all, men and women have equal opportunities for education, jobs and promotions – that battle was taken care of by the feminists of the 60s and 70s, right?

Sheryl ’s view

I recently read and re-read chapter 10 of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean-In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” This chapter convinced me that HR managers, front-line managers and entire organizations need to address how gender biases are impacting both their male and female employees in order to build a stronger organization even if this involves having some risky conversations.

Gender bias

Old style, overt office sexism may be a way of the past – in most places; but if you think gender bias doesn’t exist anymore – think again claims Sheryl Sandberg. Gender biases exist in both men and women and suppression of some of the very real issues ensures that the gender biases remain hidden rather than put on the table for problem solving and discussion. All of us are biased whether we are aware of it or not. If we think that we are objective this increases the power of the bias.

One well known gender bias was outlined by Sheryl as she describes the Heidi/Howard case study in which business students were asked to review and evaluate a case study of a very successful real life entrepreneur. The only item changed in the case studies given to the students was the name of the person from either feminine or masculine. Everything else is identical. However because of the gender bias in which success and likeability are negatively correlated for women – Howard was evaluated as a better and more likable potential colleague than Heidi – by both men and women! This is the kind of issue that Sheryl challenges organizations to start talking about rather than suppressing discussion.

Risk management and HR policies

Some of the formalized polices around the prevention of sexual harassment and legislation against discrimination that are designed to protect employees from discrimination based on their gender or gender related characteristics such as pregnancy or family status, have become rigid barriers to any discussions of the issues.

Employers are not permitted to make employment decisions based on characteristics such as gender or gender related issues. HR standards often go further to ensure legal compliance and spell out policies to ensure, deter, and coach managers not to ask anything related to these matters, as a risk management policy for the organization against future human rights discrimination claims. For example, managers are often strongly warned against asking questions such as “Are you married?”  or “Do you have or plan to have kids?” for fear that these discussions can later be used as ammunition in a human rights based claim.  Even discussing gender-driven style difference in communication could be perceived as discrimination.

Talking about gender at work

Sheryl Sandberg develops the argument in chapter 10, “Let’s start talking about it” that in order to truly eliminate gender bias that it is worthwhile to take the risk to have these types of conversations.  As a manager she understood the risk the first time she asked a prospective employee if she was considering having children. She leads by example, saying that “at Facebook, I teach managers to encourage women to talk about their plans to have children and help them continue to reach for opportunities.”

She doesn’t want to circumvent the principle of making decisions not based on gender issues – but highlights that there is a legalism that sets in and freezes out all discussion in a way that defeats the principle of the human rights protections for employees.  How can HR departments find a way to deal with these issues in a way that protects but doesn’t suppress discussions?

Risky business

Are Human Resources departments ready to change their policies on acceptable manager-employee or manager-applicant discussions about gender issues such as pregnancy and family planning in order to meet the principle of eliminating gender biases in the workplace?  Is the problem solving involved in engaging male and female employees in the opportunities available to them worth the additional risk of potential human rights claims?  Organizations may have to make a tough choice about whether the greater risk is potential litigation or the unrealized development of talent in their workforce!

Marcia’s view

As an HR manager, I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I do know that they need to be discussed, in part because of my own experiences as a working professional and a mom as well as looking to the future of the potential work and family balancing experiences of my son and two daughters. These are discussions I have had with my teens and conversations that I hope they will be able to have openly with their managers in the future.

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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