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Overcoming Gender Bias

Melinda Gates on how to be a successful woman leader

One of the biggest predictors about whether a girl will say she had a good experience is the posters on the walls. If it's all guys on the posters, she won't report having a good experience—even if she actually does a really good job in the programming camp. Whereas, if it's either all females or it's a mix of females and males on the walls, she will generally not only have a good experience, but she'll also report having had a good experience. We have these cultural norms; we think of certain jobs in certain ways. Role-modeling makes a profound difference for girls. So instead of thinking, “Oh, the only people that would be good at tech are men,” they might think, “Hey, there's a female doing that job, and she's successful. I could see myself in this role.”

This leaves us with a problem: We want to see more women in leadership roles. But the best way to encourage women to fill these roles is for them to see other women already there. As we—both women and men—see more capable and called women filling leadership roles, we’ll be more likely to encourage other women to fill similar positions. In the meantime, though, we need to keep our eyes and ears open to the gifted women around us, encouraging them to fill roles that fit their gifts, passions, and callings—even if there aren’t other women filling that particular role yet.

When Our Biases Are Wrong

It can be startling to find that our gender biases may actually be wrong. Gates told me that a study was done to determine whether there was a vast difference in skill between men and women when it came to coding. Because coders are so often men, common sense seemed to say that men are naturally better at it. Following this rationale, more men are hired for coding positions overall. But is this even true? Gates explained:

We don't mean to, but both women and men have bias about who we will hire into a role. We know this because they have blinded some of the studies. They give girls and boys a coding problem and blind it so the reviewer of the code doesn't know if it was a male or female writing the code. The women actually do slightly better than the men. But if the reviewers are looking at code and they know it was written by a man or woman, they'll generally say the man's code is better. They don't mean to—we just all have these biases. Men and women have biases, and we have to overcome that.

October27, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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