A Response to Gender Bias at Work

Live version cover artwork, Taylor Swift, THE MAN, 2020. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Repubic, or the graphic artist(s).

“I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man…’Cause if I was a man, I’d be the man.” – Taylor Swift

When Taylor Swift released a live version of her 2020 song, “The Man (Live from Paris)” last week, the lyrics got under my skin in a way I didn’t expect. It took me a minute to recognize that my mind was filling the uncomfortable pauses in the music with my own memories. The song was playing an unexpected part: shaking loose and conjuring up the many ignorant and sometimes humiliating encounters that I’ve lived through as a female CEO.  

It has taken me 20 years to accept that bias intruded on my life and my career, and I’m now frustrated I didn’t identify it sooner—and engage with it in real time. Perhaps I haven’t always been as courageous as I could have been. Why didn’t I lend my voice to strengthen the community of women that always surrounded and held me? Why didn’t I open my mouth every time someone said something that I felt, in my gut, was wrong? I wanted to believe putting in the work was enough. But that position was naïve.

Today, it brings me hope to feel the heat that Taylor Swift lends to the state of business with her poignancy and urgency. And to advance a larger conversation and push for progress, I think we all can take a page from her songbook. It should no longer be radical to perceive bias and call it out plainly as she did. As a community, we need to support each other to trust our instincts and say something.

I’ll take my turn right now. And perhaps, dear reader, these examples might shake loose something meaningful for you. This is what that bias has sounded like in my professional life. And I heard things like this all the time, for years.

Marketing Executive: “’People’ saw you coming down from the Bell Tower today [where the c-suite is housed] and you should know that you are over-reaching and seen as aggressive.”

Gate Agent at United: “Oh, you are Michelle Hayward! You sure don’t look like a 1K flyer!”

Corporate Executive: “The best thing about you is your strong point of view. The hardest thing is also your strong point of view.”

Creative Professional: “Just be patient.”  (Said by no woman to any man, ever.)

To share these examples of the “friendly advice” I’ve been given through the years comes at a cost to me. I have to acknowledge and face (again) that my ideas, thought leadership, and the excellent work that I served up weren’t valued ahead of my gender code. But my own patience for that has run out. I don’t want to hear it anymore, and neither should you.

What would happen if we all shared the cues, codes and signals that surround gender bias? What if we admitted to ourselves and each other what was really going on? I challenge myself—and all of us—to develop a sharper listening lens. We can elevate ourselves and each other faster thanks to increased awareness and solidarity. And it’s my great hope that our shared strength will fortify us to pause and answer when bias presents itself. 

Because if I could do it all over again, this is what I’d say:

“It’s curious you’d call me aggressive vs., say, ambitious. Have you thought about that?”

“I am a $1K flyer. Please don’t make assumptions about passengers based on their appearance.”

“I’m proud to have a strong point of view. It’s the mark of a leader.”

“Patience rarely results in quick progress. I keep things moving.”

Let’s share. Let’s recognize the truth of our own experiences. And when we hear something, let’s show courage. Sometimes that might mean pausing and recognizing when the credit for great ideas and capabilities is being stripped from us on the basis of our gender. Because in that moment, perhaps we can find the resolve to take a breath, raise our gaze, face the person who just diminished us so casually, and correct their behavior so it won’t be repeated.

To Taylor Swift, I send a heartfelt “thank you” for reaching across a multi-generational audience and pulling another string to unify our voices. And to every professional woman I know, I send a simple message: I know your song, and it’s probably a bit like mine. Let’s talk about it. Let’s support each other. Let’s work on responding, without apology. Let’s push for the progress we deserve.

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