Rikleen Institute LLC

Workplace bias: Women aren't the only victims

March 18, 2015

This post originally appeared in Fortune Online. 

Katherine Zaleski recently garnered national attention in her Fortune.com article by apologizing for her dismissive attitude towards working moms when she had been a childless manager. The attitude Zaleski portrayed sounded wearily familiar to many working mothers, who are often judged by fellow employees based on assumptions, not facts. After all, workplace bias is nothing new for women.

Nevertheless, Zaleski’s article reveals the destructive impact of unconscious bias in the workplace. Historically, women in the workplace have experienced prejudice and frequent acts of outright discrimination. Over time, the implementation of laws and policies, along with evolving societal attitudes, resulted in important changes. But, none of these changes have eliminated the biases that exist at the unconscious level.

Unconscious bias operates on multiple levels and even though Zaleski appears to have apologized for one, she didn’t acknowledge the others. Zaleski understood that her pre-mom success depended on conforming to a workplace model constructed when the majority of women stayed home to manage their families on a full-time basis. Zaleski’s confession to this unconscious bias clearly demonstrates why working moms are paid less, are seen as less committed, and receive fewer promotions.

But, as a business owner with a newly found public platform, Zaleski should have also recognized that good leadership requires empathy beyond one’s own experiences. Workplace bias arises when people make judgments based on only their life experiences, which is why the workplace is also an unforgiving place for employees with ill family members or those who seek greater flexibility in their lives.

Great leaders create cultures that nurture talent, even when that talent lies in employees whose life experiences are different from their own. To minimize the harmful effects of unconscious bias, leaders need to implement systems that serve as checks and balances on unfair judgments, and open lines of communications that allow for honest discussions when bias is identified. By effectively combatting these biases, people like Kelly Zaleski may no longer have to say they’re sorry.