How to Prevent Unconscious Bias from Derailing Your Career

I’d like to share a guest blog post with you today by Andie Kramer on a very important topic: women and the unconscious bias they face in the workplace, and what they can do about it. It is based on the new book Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris.

breaking through biasA major career move—advancing to a new position in your current organization, moving to a new one, or restarting your career after a break—can be difficult in the best of circumstances. But when the people controlling your ability to make such a move, that is your career gatekeepers, are biased against you, a major move can become impossible. Biases are of various sorts. Conscious biases—outspoken misogyny, racism, or anti-Semitism—are rare in today’s business environment. Unconscious or implicit biases, however, are anything but rare.

All of us on occasion use stereotypes in deciding what sort of person will be best at particular sorts of tasks. We might, for example, simply because of the stereotypes we have about particular sorts of people hire a man rather than a woman, promote a white person rather than a black person, or give a plum assignment to a young person rather than an older one. In doing so, we probably would not even be aware we were making biased, discriminatory decisions, or realize those decisions were directly contrary to our conscious, declared beliefs.

In what follows, we explain how stereotypes foster unconscious biases and how these biases limit career opportunities; we then offer some practical, effective techniques you can use to avoid or overcome the implicit biases you face in your career.

Stereotypes Foster Biases

We form stereotypes at a very young age. We ascribe to people who share a single characteristic—such as sex, race, ethnicity, or age—a host of other characteristics that can be positive—all Asians are good at math—or negative— all women are bad at math. But in either case, stereotypes are problematic because they strip a person of uniqueness. They ascribe characteristics to a person not because of actual behavior, accomplishments, and potential, but because of a social construct, an in-group/out-group prejudice, or a lazy way of deciding what a person is like. Stereotypes distort reality and create biases.

Stereotypes about Women

We commonly think that a woman—simply because she is a woman—is (and ought to be) warm, pleasant, caring, gentle, modest, sensitive, and affectionate (characteristics frequently called communal). On the other hand, we commonly think a man—simply because he is a man—is (and ought to be) strong, forceful, aggressive, competent, competitive, and independent (characteristics frequently called agentic).

A career gatekeeper who sees the world through these gender stereotypes will make decisions based on an unconscious expectation (at least at an initial meeting) that a woman will not be as forceful, competent, suited for challenging assignments, or capable of high-pressure, competitive leadership tasks as a comparably qualified man. Thus, traditional gender stereotypes foster a negative bias: a woman, simply because she is a woman, is not as capable of successful leadership as a man.

On the other hand, if a woman openly violates the traditional gender stereotypes by displaying agentic characteristics associated with (male) leadership, she is likely to be seen by her career gatekeepers as difficult, selfish, devious, and unlikable. By flaunting traditional gender stereotypes, a woman is subject to what we call an agentic bias.

Because women face a negative bias if they conform to traditional gender stereotypes and an agentic bias if they violate them, women often feel they are in a no-win situation, unable to advance regardless of what they do. As a result, they can become frustrated with their careers, cynical about their advancement opportunities, and unwilling to continue to make the effort needed to get ahead.

The pervasive nature of such frustration is well illustrated by a recent survey by Bain and Company. Bain found that when women start their careers at large organizations, they are just as ambitious as men. But after about two years, the percentage of women aiming for a top position has dropped by about 60%, while the percentage of men with similarly high ambitions has remained the same. Contrary to conventional wisdom, marital status and parental responsibilities are not significant predictors of whether a woman will aspire to a top management position. Most discouraging, 70% of female middle managers and 75% of female senior managers believe women do not have an opportunity to advance in their organizations on terms comparable to men.

The Bain survey makes clear that after being in the workplace for several years, something happens that saps women’s ambition and undermines their belief in their ability to achieve meaningful career success. That something, in our view, is unquestionably gender bias. Women’s ideas are disregarded, they are excluded from networking and skill-building opportunities, and they experience discriminatory decisions about who is assigned to important projects, who receives valuable sponsorship, who gets listened to, and who is promoted.

Before we discuss what women can do to avoid or overcome this sort of gender discrimination, we want to look briefly at how gender stereotypes can also negatively affect men’s careers.

Stereotypes about Men

When men refuse to conform to traditional male stereotypes they too face gender bias. A man will inevitably be criticized about his lack of commitment to his career if he assumes primary responsibility for his children, demands a flexible work schedule, or refuses to accept assignments that take him away from his family. Thus, a man who, for whatever reason, rejects the demand for constant “face time” and refuses to be available 24/7 faces negative career and social costs because of the gender bias against “unmanly men.”

Changing the World

Obviously, our workplaces should be more gender neutral. Women who want robust careers should be supported, not attacked, and men who want to assume more domestic responsibilities should be respected, not depreciated. But achievement of such a blessed state of affairs will require enormous changes in workplace culture and social attitudes—changes we do not expect to see any time soon. This means that the real question is not whether our workplaces should change—of course, they should—but what women and men can do now to avoid or overcome pervasive discriminatory gender biases.

Women and Gender Bias

Women often suffer career penalties if their career gatekeepers see them as communal—thus not capable of leadership—or as agentic—thus unpleasant and unlikable. We call this double bind the Goldilocks Dilemma: a woman is “too soft” if she is seen as communal and “too hard” if she is seen as agentic. The trick for a woman, therefore, is to be seen as “just right,” and this depends on her ability to combine both agentic and communal behaviors in the right proportions at the right times. We call such purposeful mixing of “hard” and “soft” behaviors “attuned gender communication.”

A recent study tracked a group of female and male MBA graduates over the first eight years of their careers. It illustrates the effectiveness of attuned gender communication. Those women who were purposefully able to dial up or dial down their communal and agentic characteristics as they thought necessary were more successful than everyone else. They received 1.5 times as many promotions as agentic men, 1.5 times as many promotions as communal women, 2 times as many promotions as communal men, and 3 times as many promotions as agentic women. By using attuned gender communication, women can finesse rather than reinforce other people’s gender stereotypes to avoid gender bias.

For a successful career, a woman must be able to present her ideas forcefully, lead with decisiveness, and stand her ground when criticized. But unless she can mix this sort of agentic behavior with communal characteristics that convey her openness to other people’s ideas, her inclusiveness and relatability, and her social sensitivity, she is likely to be penalized, not rewarded. A woman should never be hesitant to speak up, assert her point of view, or take charge, but when she does, she needs to project personal engagement with her audience, a genuine concern for the welfare of her organization and the people in it, and a keen sense of fair play. In other words, unlike a comparably situated man, a woman needs to pair behavior that shows her competence, confidence, and a competitive appetite with behavior that projects warmth, inclusiveness, and likability.

Men and Gender Bias

A man who wants to play a meaningful role in the life of his family must decide if he also wants a demanding career. If he doesn’t, then the consequences of the bias against “unmanly men” are essentially irrelevant. But if he wants a robust career, he must find a way to overcome this bias, and this will require him to do at least two things.

First, he must take concrete steps that will allow him to have a full domestic life while pursuing career advancement. He will need to negotiate firm arrival and departure times, a flexible work schedule, or an opportunity to work from home. Such arrangements can be difficult, but not impossible, to obtain. And they are likely to come with costs: less rapid advancement opportunities, lower financial rewards, and fewer challenging projects than he might otherwise be qualified for. But if he truly owns his choice to equally value career and family, he will be able to live with the consequences if that choice with grace and good humor.

Second, consistent with the demands of his domestic responsibilities, he must maximize the visibility of his career commitment. This means he must devote much of his time when he is not with his family to his career. In other words, if it is not a family matter, he should be involved with his career, and if it is not a career matter, he should be involved with his family. To do this, he will need to forego many other aspirations—an active social life, non-business travel, training for a marathon, civic engagement, university extension courses, a book project, and much else. To achieve career success and real domestic engagement, a man must make clear that he is fully committed to both. Women with children and careers have been doing this for quite some time, and if a woman can do it, a man ought to be able to do so too.

Other Biases

Our discussion has focused for the most part on gender bias. But other implicit biases—race, ethnicity, age, religion, education, ancestry, or whatever—can also derail a career. The techniques that are most effective in avoiding or overcoming these biases may vary slightly, but they should all be approached in basically the same way: become aware of the stereotypes that are driving the bias, identify your behaviors that play into and obviate the consequences of this bias, and learn to manage the impressions you make so you confound or overcome these stereotypes rather than feed them.

Three Tactical Phrases that Will Help You Have a Better Life

As an executive coach, I work with many people who are trying to figure out how to have better, less irritable, and less argumentative communications at work.

Many of my clients come for coaching help on this issue because they must navigate a workplace with stressed out, anxious people, including their bosses, who can often be pretty tired and crabby. Deadlines, making their numbers by the end of the month, fears about job loss, and a 24/7 workplace culture of accessibility take their toll on everyone, and contribute to pressure-cooker environments at many workplaces. Many of my clients tell me they feel out of control and worried at work. Maybe you do too. If so, you are not alone. It is likely that others at work feel the same way, and that includes your boss. If your workplace is stressful, what can you do to have a better workplace experience? How can you talk with people effectively to do what you need to accomplish with people who are, let’s face it, in a bad mood for good reasons? Try these three tactics to help navigate interactions at your stressed-out workplace.

Sounds like you need / feel / said … Did I get that right?”

This is a question that helps you to clarify what the other person wants, needs, or said that was unclear to you. Instead of guessing, try this phrase to get greater clarity about the task or operation or intervention that needs to be done before you spend time doing it and possibly doing it wrong. The phrase, “Did I get that right?” is a great way to get anyone to restate or rephrase a need or request that was unclear without generating hostility. If you were to say “I don’t understand what you meant” or “You are not being clear” there is more of a chance that the other person will take offense, experience frustration with you, or blame you for failing to get it right because those statements are more confrontational. People who feel heard can problem solve better. Try this phrase instead and see if it helps even with crabby people!

“What do you need from me to make this go better?”

This phrase helps the other person feel listened to and supported. In an anxious, stressful workplace, you can be sure that everyone needs more support. Another good phrase that also helps the other person feel supported is simply: “How can I help you?” If you ask this question, the other person will usually feel a sense of relief and more in control because at least YOU are listening and caring. Try this question with co-workers and bosses who are stressed out and see if it helps them calm down.

“Help me understand more about what should be done…”

This phrase sets a positive tone for a conversation that might be difficult. Instead of blaming the other person by saying “You didn’t give me enough information,” you draw the person out by asking for additional information. The best approach with a difficult person or conversation is to be curious. When you start off the conversation with curiousness the other person does not feel personally assaulted. Another helpful phrase is “Can you say more about that?” or “Can you tell me more?” All of these phrases work to draw the person out without making him or her feel blamed for failing to provide enough information or mentoring for you to do the job you need to do. Instead, you are encouraging to the person to help you understand the assignment better.

Try out these phrases at work and use them at home too. They work incredibly well to help people who interact with you to feel supported and heard. When that happens, they will interact with you in a more positive way and your life will go better as a result.

Marketing for Lawyers, Part III: The Marketing Plan (Promises You Make to Yourself)

This is the third of three blog posts on marketing strategies for lawyers; the first was Marketing for Lawyers, Part I: Setting the Stage and the second was Marketing for Lawyers, Part II: De-Mystifying Business Development Activities.

A marketing plan is really nothing more than promises you make to yourself. You are going to give yourself some assignments and deadlines, and it will be your job to follow through.

Marketing Plan

Why Bother to do a Marketing Plan?

The marketing plan is a roadmap. If you were about to set out on a journey, you would want to have a roadmap or GPS to guide you. Without it, you run the risk of wandering around aimlessly in the woods on your quest for business. The time you spend lost in the woods is time you are wasting. Since you are a really busy person and you do not want to spend an inordinate amount of your precious time on marketing, the roadmap is a time saver.

The marketing plan does even more for you:

  1. It helps you to eliminate excuses.
  2. It helps you to focus by setting up tasks that you can do based on the time you have available to devote to the task.
  3. It helps your firm to feel confident about the seriousness of your purpose.
  4. It’s empowering for you. You know just what needs to be done, which eliminates the sense of ambiguity or amorphousness that can otherwise deter motivation.
  5. It can keep you from being sidetracked by other requests for assistance or demands on your time because you will analyze the requests based on whether they further your goals.

When you map out a marketing plan, you should consider some or all of the following:

  1. Your abilities, interests, and strengths as a lawyer and as a person.
  2. What you will need to do in the four key realms of networking, leadership, meetings, and client contact.
  3. Whether you will need to obtain specific assistance from your firm, and if so, what.
  4. How you can engage your secretary or other staff to achieve your goals.
  5. Whether to meet with key people by yourself or with others from your firm.

A Sample Marketing Plan

Here is a sample marketing plan that was developed after in-depth discussions about business development goals; you can use it as a model. Click on the image to download the PDF.

marketing planIn developing the plan, we considered organizations, community activities, writing, publishing, speaking, key people at work, people known from past experiences, hobbies and more to identify potential areas for growth relationships that could lead to business. We talked about the mindset that works best when going to events or to one-on-one meetings. We addressed how to message effectively, and the need to persevere despite the difficulty of seeing immediate progress and much more.

Instead of thinking of this as a marketing plan, think of it as “promises you are making to yourself.” Use the goal / action / deadline / status as a progress report, and think about any impediments to implementation, including emotional impediments such as nervousness about seeming to be needy, or anxiety about going to a group meeting. Removing emotional impediments is by far the most important component of a successful campaign to market services. This is something that is often not considered when people talk about marketing. What I have learned is that many marketing plans are pretty easy to put together and they look lovely and have great promise, but the biggest problem to getting the work done is emotional discomfort about implementation. Working through personal issues is essential. If you do not do that, even the best marketing plan will sit on your desk and never evolve into business.

What can you do to prepare?

Review Personal Issues

Identify how you best relate to people:

  • Do you love parties?
  • Do you prefer one-on-one meetings?
  • Do you enjoy speaking to large groups?
  • How about small groups?
  • Do you teach in any capacity?
  • What social skills do you want to build?
  • Have you written for any journals or trade magazines?
  • What constraints do you anticipate in setting up your marketing plan?

Future Business

Describe your ideas about where your cases could come from in the future.

If you can spend some time at least thinking through these questions, it will help to clarify your actions.


The path to greater business generation is almost like a quest on which you embark. Think of it as a medieval quest. In the beginning, it is not always perfectly clear which path to take, but if you know the castle or castles you are determined to reach, the path will get clearer as you go along. Your job is to get out there and find your way into and through the woods. You have to help people to trust you and like you. As your quest evolves, your job becomes more specific and clear and you will have sell meetings with potential clients, but they will be more like counseling or coaching because you already have the client’s trust.

In its most elemental form, marketing is a way to create trust relationships in the castle or castles where you derive business or want to derive business.

And one more key thing: what really works best is changing from thinking there is something you need to do, to thinking of the activity as enjoyable and fun. Finding the fun in interpersonal interaction is very important for long term motivation. How can this happen? By thinking about what you actually get a kick out of when you meet new people, instead of focusing on the dread. When I work with clients who are anxious about marketing and relationship building, we talk about how deeply rewarding it feels to develop a new friendship and tap into that instead of focusing on some imperative like “you have to do this or that to be successful” or “these are tasks you have to complete by such and such time.” When the focus is on enjoyment and personal reward, people are much more able to follow through.

Article: Eleven Career Lessons

Check out the article below. Much of the information in it is spot on and consistent with what I have seen with my clients who successfully find good jobs.  Internships are wonderful for building relationships and credibility as well as trust and good will with a workplace.  It is interesting that one of the later points the author makes is that some of her success was due to luck.  The luck she had was that someone who needed her help read her materials online, was impressed, and offered her an opportunity.  Yes, there is an element of luck, but what you should not underestimate is the value of good work and the recognition it can bring.  Her luck was more predictable than she might be giving herself credit for.  When you do good work in the work community you are engaged in, people take note and are likely to reach out to you.  I see this happen all the time in the counseling work I do.  This is the way to grow your career, through trust relationships that you nurture based on the good work that you do in your chosen field.

eleven lessons

Marketing for Lawyers, Part II: De-Mystifying Business Development Activities

This is the second of three blog posts on marketing strategies for lawyers; the first was Marketing for Lawyers, Part I: Setting the Stage.

Let’s talk about some basic activities that are important to your success.

When it comes to business development, you always want to be engaged in these four activities:

  • Networking activities
  • Leadership activities
  • Meetings with key people
  • Cultivating current and past clients

getting started

A. What Constitutes Networking?

Networking is interactivity, “getting out and about,” meeting and greeting people. You want to spend your time and effort engaging and interacting with people in the neighborhoods that are promising when it comes to business development. Those neighborhoods usually include groups of lawyers who could refer cases to you, groups of lawyers who are in the same niche as you, and various groups of potential clients.

You want to go where they go mentally and physically. That means you want to be part of the neighborhood, a “player” if you will. You want to become someone who is active and interactive with many people in these target markets.

You might wonder why the lawyer group is so important. Many clients I have worked with have gotten most (even 80 or 90%) of their cases from other attorneys. Lawyers who do not practice in your practice area or your niche are possible referral sources. Competing lawyers who are conflicted out can be referral sources. Lawyers who go in-house can refer matters to you. Lawyers at your own firm in a different practice area might refer to you, and should refer to you.

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