Commit to Eliminating Bias at Work this International Women’s Day

Megan Thompson · March 8, 2021

What is International Women’s Day?

International women’s day has been celebrated for well over 100 years to recognise the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. Furthermore, International Women’s Day seeks to educate people about the challenges women face globally and is a call to accelerate women’s equality.

international women's day

This year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge, a campaign that encourages people to commit to forging an inclusive world. The theme is apt, since Covid-19 forced many people to be introspective and confront and challenge the biases and inequalities around them.

This has been especially significant in the workplace. Throughout the pandemic, millions of women have taken on the additional burden of unpaid work, such as homeschooling and child care. During 2020’s ongoing lockdowns women spent, on average, 62 hours per week caring for children (compared to 36 hours for men) and 23 hours per week doing housework (15 hours for men), according to a European Commission study.

On top of these domestic challenges, women simultaneously faced implicit bias at work and a still wide gender pay gap of 15.5%across all employees in the UK last year.

Why is #ChooseToChallenge so significant in the workplace?

#ChooseToChallenge’s mission to help women at work is to forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive and achievements are celebrated. But with women representing only 11% of the membership of governing bodies in Europe it is clear there is a long way to go to meet these aims of inclusivity and equality.

These issues run deep in organisations, with almost three in four women at work experiencing gender-based bias. Furthermore, women of colour, LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities are far more likely to face acute biases, too. Yet sadly, only one in three people challenge this behaviour at work.

According to IWD and, the most common forms of bias women in the workplace experience are:

  • Likability bias: when women are assertive this can often be interpreted as rude, aggressive or abrasive. By comparison, when men are assertive this is seen as a leadership quality.
  • Performance bias: women are often underestimated in their capabilities and performance at work whereas men are often overestimated in their abilities.
  • Maternal bias: women can often be overlooked for positions of leadership or even in the hiring process if assumptions are made about their current or future plans for motherhood.
  • Attribution bias: women are often given less credit for accomplishments and they are often blamed for mistakes at work.
  • Affinity bias: people tend to gravitate toward people similar to themselves. This means women – particularly women of colour and women with disabilities are more likely to miss out on positions of leadership where they are not already represented.
  • Intersectionality: bias extends far beyond gender, and many women also experience bias and discrimination based on other aspects of their identity. Race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion or socio-economic background can all impact the way in which women experience the workplace.

The importance of diversity and inclusion

Diverse leadership teams and workforces have been proven time and again to be valuable and necessary to a successful organisation. In fact, companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above industry average.

New perspectives and diverse voices provide an opportunity for traditionally male-led, white boards to make proactive progress internally and to increase competitive advantage.

Women have made fierce leaders, with many showing they are willing to take risks in business. For example, studies have shown the existence of the “glass cliff” where women are more likely to be picked for senior leadership positions when companies are in crisis or at high risk of failing.

However, 64% of women see the absence of female role models as a barrier to their development at work. Therefore, it is vital that more women are encouraged to take on positions of leadership not only for themselves, but to inspire other women too.

How can we eliminate workplace bias?

The difficulty with implicit bias is that it can often be an underlying, subconscious worldview that unless challenged, one may not recognise. Whether deliberate or not, it is holding women back from succeeding at work and reaching their full potential.

For example, just last month KPMG’s UK Chair Bill Michael resigned from his position after he described the concept of unconscious bias as being “complete and utter crap for years.” Michael’s employees did choose to challenge this behaviour and expressed disappointment at his failure to acknowledge the underlying issues of discrimination in the workplace.

Challenging bias is at the heart of this year’s International Women’s Day, and partnering with they have created a fantastic free in-depth 50 Ways to Fight Bias programme, with both a moderator guide and a 60-90 minute deck for your organisation.

It addresses the systemic barriers women face in the workplace, how to empower women and provide mentorship and support, and how to challenge gender bias you might see in the workplace.

Your next steps to a more inclusive workplace

Using a tool such as LeanIn’s bias training guide is a great start to opening conversations about inequality at work. Furthermore, these resources also help encourage employees to think critically about the way in which they perceive female colleagues. With helpful guides for how to effectively challenge biased behaviour in others, this tool could be key to improving working relationships in your teams.

However, identifying our conscious and unconscious bias isn’t enough to improve workplace diversity and to eliminate sexism. We need long-term commitments from business leaders to close gender pay gaps, increase leadership opportunities for women and to set the tone for what is expected from employees.

Take the time to review the existing structure of your organisation. What does it look like? You could be missing out on a wide range of perspectives and talent if there is a lack of diversity. Consider the ways in which you could address inequalities over the next 5 years to ensure you have a more balanced, experienced and sustainable organisation.

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