As many around the world have now seen or heard, Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, was interrupted for the second time in a week by her male colleagues, and called “hysterical” for behavior that is clearly, undeniably not hysterical but forceful and assertive.
As one who coaches and trains hundreds of mid- to senior-level professional women every year, I can assure you that this is not an isolated experience – it’s a widespread global phenomenon. In my own professional life, I was hired at the level of vice president in a male-dominated organization, and I experienced being demeaned and negatively punished for being forceful and firm. In fact, throughout my 18 years in corporate life, there were numerous experiences of this. I’d been called a “buzz saw” for getting things done expeditiously, a “bitch” for being forceful, and other choice (negative) words for assertive behavior that was applauded and even rewarded in my male colleagues.
At the root of this phenomenon is unconscious and conscious gender bias against commanding women, and surprisingly, it exists in both men and women. What has played out on our nation’s stage is a prime example of a forceful woman being shut down by male colleagues, and treated almost as if she’s a naughty, misbehaving child who needs reprimanding and scolding.
I’ve studied and worked with communications patterns, power dynamics, hierarchy and structures of relationships and other communication issues since I began my master’s studies and training as a marriage and family therapist in 2002. Since that time, my eyes have been opened about the deep, unconscious bias both men and women harbor against women who are assertive and confident.
Below is what is critical to examine and explore in our society and our own behavior that is at the root of what happened to Ms. Harris:
1) There is undeniably significant unconscious gender bias in our society
There is indeed a great deal of unconscious gender bias with regard to how society views strong, authoritative women. Often, women are punished by our society and in their roles in leadership and management for speaking in confident ways. And they are perceived far more negatively than men for communicating in the same forceful way and manner as men do. This unconscious bias against women exists in both men and women.
In my Forbes.com interview with behavioral science researchers Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, they share their research on this exact issue. As the interview states:
A new study by New York Times bestselling authors, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield revealed that gender bias in the workplace is real, finding that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived worth falls by $15,088 when they are judged as being "forceful" or "assertive." Compare this with the drops in competency and worth that men experience when being judged as forceful: their competency drops by 22% and their worth falls by $6,547. This significant difference reveals a true gender bias that prohibits women from succeeding fully in leadership and management roles where assertiveness is, of course, a crucial behavior.
I discuss these issues too in my recent TEDx talk "Time to Brave Up" about how women, while discouraged and punished when speaking up, need to learn how to advocate for themselves more powerfully if they wish to build the leadership, management and political influence they desire and deserve.
We collectively need to recognize and understand unconscious bias, and we each need to be more aware of the biases we harbor. And women need to understand that, while there will continue to be negative backlash when they behave assertively, they cannot stop or change their behavior to avoid it. They need to continue speaking up and advocating with self-assuredness and authority, in order for the world to change.
Other studies have shown that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. Research has confirmed that the more successful a woman is perceived today, the less she is liked. Sheryl Sandberg’s now well-known talk explores this issue.
In her talk, Ms. Sandberg mentions a Harvard Business Review study from a number of years ago. Students in a Harvard class were divided into two groups. Both groups were given an identical case study about a real life entrepreneur and described how this individual had achieved great success as a venture capitalist by using their outgoing personality and networking skills. For one group, the bio indicated the name Heidi Roizen, but for the other group, the bio was associated with a male - Howard Roizen. The text was identical for both groups, except for the name change.
The results showed that the male version was received more positively in terms of likability, even though the description was exactly the same.
2) Women being labeled "hysterical" for forceful communication
This is a powerful example of unconscious bias – Ms. Harris’ behavior here is not "hysterical" by any stretch, but it is forceful. (Take a look for yourself.) It seems that people have equated forcefulness as "hysteria" in women and women have been shushed, scolded and silenced throughout history.
For this negative, biased phenomenon to change, we each have to do what is necessary to question our own thoughts and assumptions when it comes to judging behavior. We need to stop in our tracks before attacking or judging someone for their actions, and "Flip It To Test It" (#FlipItToTestIt). We need to evaluate if we would be making these same judgments and impugning the behavior in the same way if it were another gender engaging in it. In other words, would we ever call a man "hysterical" for communicating the way Senator Harris did? I’m sure not. (Here's more about unconscious gender bias and the need to "flip it to test it.")
3) What we personally think about Ms. Harris's communication style is irrelevant to the question of "Are we biased against women who are forceful?"
Finally, while we might not each personally agree with, like or be comfortable with Ms. Harris's style of questioning, the key issue we need to focus on is not our comfort with it, but how our society tends to judge women significantly more negatively than men when they're engaging in the same type of behavior.
Read the original article on Forbes.