Workplace inequality: The role of gender bias and how to break it

Article by Joan P. Ball, Sonya Barlow and Gemma Dale

business inequality, woman and man climbing the career ladder, gender inequalityWe all come to the workplace with biases; perceptions of the ways people should interact with one another and where they fit in the organization.

Unfortunately, due to power dynamics, cultural norms and stereotypes, these biases, whether conscious or unconscious, can lead to prejudices that favour some groups over others.

For women, stereotypes linked to gender roles can show up in hiring practices, leadership development, compensation and promotion, expectations for office “housework”, sexual harassment and pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Three in four mothers (77%) said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on return from maternity leave, and around one in nine mothers (11%) reported they felt forced to leave their job. In the UK this could amount to around 54,000 women a year. Women are more likely to work part time, and for doing so often find themselves on the end of flexible working stigma and career stagnation. The gender pay gap remains significant, and a lack of quality part-time and flexible work is a contributing factor.

These issues are compounded when gender bias is combined with racial, ethnic and other biases in the workplace. A study conducted by PwC in 2020 found that in the UK, Black Caribbean women are the lowest female earners, earning as little as 70p for every £1 earned by the average White British man. For full-time workers, this amounts to a difference in earnings of around over £8,000 a year. However, pay is just one part of the story. Women from minority backgrounds experience systematic structural inequalities that see them overrepresented in insecure jobs, at a higher risk of being underemployed as well as facing discrimination in the workplace.

Unfortunately, while it may be tempting to view this as a challenge between the sexes, both men and women carry these biases into the workforce. In fact, according to research conducted by the UN across the globe, nearly 90% of men AND women hold biased views against women.

The more pervasive these biases are, the more likely women will be forced to leave the workplace, unable to access flexible work, or step down the career ladder to roles that are not commensurate with their skills and experience just to balance their work and personal responsibilities. This is not just bad for those individual women but for organisations too who miss out on vital talent.

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There are many things that organisations can do to break these biases. We have outlined a few steps and actions that leaders can take right now to mitigate the impact of harmful biases and eliminate them from the workplace.

  1. Listen and then invest in education. Colleagues must listen to one another and hear each other’s different experiences. Not only does this raise awareness, but it also creates an inclusive space. To extend this, such problems should be solved through training leaders and employees on biases and discrimination to identify what stereotypes we are using, and affirming, with our attitudes and conversations and learn how to address and eliminate them. It is also important for the organisation to acknowledge and tackle any discriminatory incident and determine a root cause so they can get specific education on those topics.
  2. Review your data. Organisations need to be robust in reviewing their people data and acting upon it; identifying areas where bias might arise from recruitment to exit. Who is hired, promoted and rewarded? Bias can arise in all of these areas. Once issues have been identified, senior management and HR teams can then be trained on the impact of bias in these areas. They must identify their gaps and opportunities for improvement to develop procedures and policies that mitigate any conscious or unconscious biases.
  3. Normalise flexible working for all. We need to break the idea that it is just women (and more specifically mums) that want to work part time or flexibly – this will benefit fathers too. New models of post-pandemic work, such as hybrid working, have the potential to support gender equality. Organisations must also monitor the career outcomes of hybrid work in order to identify any issues quickly – and then take prompt action to address them.
  4. Encourage employees to become advocates and allies. At every level of an organisation, it’s important for all staff to advocate and be an ally of diversity, equity and inclusion. What this means is that after learning what stereotypes and biases are harmful, they can call out and have impactful conversations with their colleagues to avoid reinforcing these ideas. It also means creating supportive and inclusive environments where everyone feels like they belong, and creating policies that foster an unbiased workplace.

Identifying and engaging with workplace bias issues requires acknowledging that even the most forward-thinking or progressive organisation (or individual) comes to the workplace with biases, even if we are committed to overcoming them. In doing so, organisations can design spaces and systems that encourage every employee, manager and leader to commit to co-creating a culture of curiosity, inquiry and exploration about how to identify and mitigate workplace biases in real time, across all areas of power inequality and potential bias. This needs to include attention to gender inequality and discrimination, and where that intersects with other sorts of bias, such as racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation and others.

Like any building, foundations must be set to build a strong house on top – and this is the same in business, careers and corporate.

About the authors

Joan BallJoan P. Ball PhD, FRSA is the founder of WOMB Service Design Lab, an action research consultancy that works with individuals, teams and organisations to develop the tools and approaches they need to navigate uncertain transitions and teach others to do the same. She is also an Associate Professor of Marketing at St. John’s University in New York City and author of Stop, Ask, Explore: Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty (Kogan Page, April 2022).


Sonya BarlowSonya Barlow is an award-winning entrepreneur, founder of the @LMFnetwork, diversity business coach, TEDx speaker and author of Unprepared to Entrepreneur: A Method to the Madness of Starting Your Own Business (Kogan Page, Oct 2021). Named as one of 2020’s Most Influential Women in Tech by ComputerWeekly, she is a TechRound Top 50 BAME Entrepreneur, LinkedIn’s Changemaker 2021 for Gender, Diversity & Inclusion and Marie Claire Future Shaper 2020 and hosts the Everyday Hustle radio show for BBC Asian Network.


Gemma DaleGemma Dale is a Senior HR professional, conference speaker, author of How to Work Remotely: Work Effectively, No Matter Where You Are (Kogan Page, July 2022) and coach with over 20 years’ experience. She is a lecturer in employment law, organisational behaviour and wellbeing at Liverpool John Moores University Business School, UK, and co-founder of The Work Consultancy where she helps business develop their people policies. In 2021 she was named as one of the Most Influential HR Thinkers by HR Magazine.

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