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  • Writer's pictureAmy Woolf


She could tone down her personality.
She doesn’t always know how to read a room.
She can be a bit too much.
She could be less forceful in her opinion.
She is a little too emotional.

This is some of the feedback I have taken from men about women they work with during this year alone. Feedback on women they respect. Women they trust. Women they value. Women they want to work with again. In my entire career headhunting I have NEVER heard a man describe another man like that. They may be seen as direct, or perhaps at best that they “shoot from the hip” but never “too much” and never described as needing to “tone it down”.

In March 2020 Catalyst launched the Bias Correct campaign. In their research women who displayed supposedly “masculine” traits such as assertiveness were often described as "aggressive", women who asked for pay rises were typically labelled “difficult” and those who were strategic were regularly called “calculated”. The research told us what we already knew, you can be incredibly supportive of women and still have gender biases. You can believe you are helping a woman by telling her she is cold, mercurial or that she needs to tone it down, but really you are just giving her labels that you would never give to a man. You are in fact, making her feel less than.

“I don’t think you are as good as you think you are”

A man once said that in an interview to me. I am ashamed to say I crumbled. I was applying for an internal job, and I couldn’t believe that this was what my peers thought of me. I had recently returned to work following maternity leave and had struggled with my confidence ever since. I am still haunted by those words. Luckily, I worked for an incredible woman who I could turn to and break down in front of at the time. She was one of the amazing women who taught me that you can be vulnerable and successful, embrace your femininity without losing status. She was appalled by the way he had phrased it, told me that it wasn’t true and, that he would never have spoken to a man that way. Both memories stay with me. His words fuel my imposter syndrome, hers remind me how to talk to others.

I recently read somewhere that if you have a brain you are biased, and I believe that to be true. The reality is that we all have biases, but if we are ever to live in an equal society, we need to be aware of those biases and actively try to break them. Every woman I know has a story, a time when she was labelled as something inflammatory and those comments have a profound affect on us. They make us feel like we need to hide a part of who we are. If in every appraisal we are told you can be a little too much” or “perhaps try not to be too sensitive”, we will eventually start shying away from what makes us wonderful. It is absurd to say that being sensitive is negative, when empathy and compassion unlock creativity, and I will never understand why a woman is bossy yet a man is assertive. Women can be confident without being “bolshy”, men can be vulnerable without needing to “man up”. This is true from childhood to adulthood. Girls are precocious, boys are boisterous. Girls are bitchy, boys are silly. We need to correct our bias early on.

So, how are we going to #breakthebias?

  1. As a mother, I commit to continuing to speak to my children with language that encourages them equally, using the same vocabulary for my daughter, as my sons. Every night before they go to sleep, I tell each of them that they are clever, they are kind, they are beautiful, they are important and they are my cuties (my eldest added the last affirmation when she was 2. It has stuck.)

  2. As a sister and friend, I commit to congratulating women on their successes and offering a safe space for them to openly discuss anything without judgement.

  3. As a daughter, I will continue to speak freely about how change is progressive. I am constantly in awe of how receptive my father is to change, and how much he appreciates learning what discrimination feels like.

  4. As a business owner, I commit to employing without prejudice and allowing everyone who works for me to bring their whole self to work and speak frankly about any concerns they have.

  5. As an Executive Search consultant, I commit to enabling candidates to bring their authenticity to interview processes, helping clients to find diverse talent and always giving open and honest feedback.

How will you break the bias?

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