Bias, Leadership and Creating Change.

Bias, Leadership and Creating Change.

An article from Women Rising Founder and CEO - Megan Dalla-Camina.

This thought is always at the forefront of my mind and in the centre of my work: What will make a real, tangible, sustainable difference for working women in the world today?

When we look at this question through a work place lens, , we can zone in on two of the greatest impacts to progress: bias and leadership.

In a world permeated by #metoo and #timesup, a US Presidential candidate base that has seen the most diverse group of candidates ever, and an end to the notion that women need to be fixed or act like men to succeed in a ‘man’s world’, things are certainly changing, and incredible progress is being made in some areas.

And yet still, we see data that feels like a slap in the face every time we look at it, like these stats:





It’s infuriating, if not surprising, and it doesn’t make sense on any of the levels that our patriarchal world cares most about - namely success, money and power. I have many things to say about power and you can read one commentary on that here. Having worked in corporate America for 18 years, and studied and researched the issues broadly, I know it’s complex. It’s complicated and nuanced. I get it. But let’s just look at money for a moment.

There is irrefutable data that shows that when we have more equality at the board level, management and in teams, that many metrics that are valued increase significantly.

Catalyst has shown that companies with more women board directors outperformed those with the least on three financial measures: return on equity (53% higher), return on sales (42% higher), and return on invested capital (66% higher).

McKinsey Global Institute has shown that getting to equal workplace participation could add between twelve and twenty-eight trillion dollars, or up to twenty-six per cent to annual global GDP in 2025. That’s the equivalent of combining the United States and China economies today.  Let that sink in.

And we know from Lean In and many research studies that companies with more women in leadership roles perform better and have better family policies; diverse teams are often more innovative, productive, and have greater profits; and employees on diverse and inclusive teams put in more effort, stay longer, and demonstrate more commitment.

There is no shortage of evidence that show that when women show up, results go up. But still here we are.


The barriers remain, and are very real - as any woman knows who is or has tried to succeed in workplaces (and entrepreneurial settings) that were and still are largely designed for men to succeed in. And if you’re a woman of colour, it’s significantly harder again.

In a Harvard Business Review study of CEOs deeply committed to D&I, they called out these primary barriers:

  • Exclusion from networks and conversations that open doors to further development and promotion.
  • Unexamined assumptions constrain women’s chances to progress.
  • Double standards trip up women in line for promotions, as when characteristics prized in male leaders are viewed as negative qualities in women.
  • Geographic immobility due to family constraints.
  • Insufficient support for women who were rejoining the workforce after taking time off to raise children.
  • Unsurprisingly, CEOs brought up barriers related to childbearing, child rearing and a lack of flexible work hours.

There is nothing new here. It was the same when I was Head of Strategy at IBM, leading the gender diversity strategy and working on Male Champions Change. It was the same when I writing Lead Like A Woman, when founding the company and doing our work at Women Rising, and it’s a discussion I have in nearly every workplace I walk into.

And yet here we are. Still. With those numbers, these barriers and numbers that are shifting at a glacial pace.

There are a thousand different things I could have written about today.

I could written about all the positives I see in the world, which is my usual lens as I seek to amplify the good as it’s how we create positive change. I could have written a memo slamming the patriarchy, reflections on power, or a manifesto for the uprising of women (all which you can find on my website and in my books, particularly my latest Simple Soulful Sacred). And I could have written an inspirational and empowering message for women, of which there is plenty I’ve written already.

But as I continue my work with women and leaders in organisations around the world, there are two things amongst many on my mind today that are at the heart of why we are still here.


We all have biases that lead us to make snap judgments about people, their behaviours and capabilities. Biases are our mental shortcuts for making sense of the world. A lot of the time, they are completely unconscious. And in case you missed it, we all have them. Here are two cases in point from the Harvard Implicit Association Test:

76% of participants associate men with career and women with family. This is regardless of their own gender.

75% of participants show a preference for white people over black people. This is even true for half of black participants.

These numbers are hard to look at, and an instant reaction may be to say ‘rubbish I don’t believe that.’ But when we dig a little deeper, we all know that we have bias and it impacts every single thing we do. There are many types of bias that impact women at work: the likeability bias, performance bias, maternal bias, attribution bias, affinity bias, double discrimination and intersectionality bias.

And there are significant challenges that come from them. Let’s make it real with these examples from


How many times more often do men interrupt women than other men?

Almost 3x more.

If you watch coworkers at the same level in meetings, you’ll likely notice that more men sit in the front and centre seats. Women tend to gravitate toward the end of the table and edge of the room, away from positions that convey status. Women also get less airtime in group discussions and they are interrupted more —by both men and women—and given less credit for their ideas.

What can you do about it?

Look for ways to shape the conversation. When a woman is interrupted, interject and say you’d like to hear her finish. When a coworker runs away with a woman’s idea, remind everyone it originated with her by saying, “Great idea...thanks to Ava for surfacing it.”

If you see a woman struggling to break into the conversation, say you’d like to hear other points of view.

When you advocate for your women coworkers, they benefit—and you’re seen as a leader. Meetings are most effective when everyone’s best thinking is heard. I saw a great example of this recently on the television show Good Trouble Season One which brilliantly showcases so many diversity and inclusion issues at work (including but not limited to gender).


In a study of performance reviews, what % of women received negative feedback on their personal style such as “You can sometimes be abrasive”? And what % of men received that same type of feedback.

66% of women and 1% of men

Let that figure sink in. Men are expected to be assertive and confident, so coworkers welcome their leadership. In contrast, women are expected to be nurturing and collaborative, so when we lead, we go against expectations—and often face pushback from men and women.

The problem is that as women we need to assert ourselves to be effective. This “likeability penalty” often surfaces in the way women are described, both in passing and in performance reviews.

When a woman speaks in a direct style or pushes her ideas, she is often called “aggressive” and “ambitious.” When a man does the same, he is seen as “confident” and “strong.” Start watching in your workplace, in leadership meetings, or any setting you might walk into as a business owner. You will be staggered to see example after example of this in play.

What can you do? Challenge the likeability penalty.

When you hear a woman called “bossy” or “shrill,” request a specific example of what the woman did and then ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?” In many cases, the answer will be no. When you’re having a negative response to a woman at work, ask yourself the same question (“Would you have had the same reaction if a man did the same thing?”) and give her the benefit of the doubt. Odds are she’s just doing her job.


According to a recent study by a Harvard PhD candidate in economics, men get about the same amount of credit when they write a research paper with a mixed gender team as they do when they’re the sole author. In contrast, how much credit do women get when they write a paper as part of a team with a man on it?

Almost zero credit.

Women are often given less credit for successful outcomes and blamed more for failure.

Women and men respond to recognition differently. Women often credit their accomplishments to external factors such as “getting lucky” and “help from others,” while men attribute theirs to innate qualities and skills. They own their success, and women undermine theirs. Conversely, when women celebrate their own accomplishments, they are often penalised for self-promotion. As a result of these dynamics, women’s contributions can go unnoticed.

What can you do? Celebrate women’s accomplishments.

It makes more difference than you could ever know. Get together with a group of women and agree to celebrate one another’s successes whenever possible. Although women are often penalised for promoting themselves, you can lift up other women, and they can do the same for you. Look out for mastermind groups, women’s circles, networking groups, co-working spaces like The Wing in the US and organisations like Business Chicks in Australia that gather women and celebrate success, no matter what it looks like.

When you introduce women coworkers, highlight their credentials and accomplishments—for example, you might say, “Leila was in charge of our most recent product launch, and it generated more sales than any other initiative this year.”

This is just a snap shot. There are endless examples of where bias lives in us, our workplaces, our business communities. When I presented a keynote on this topic this week many men came up to me afterwards and quietly thanked me, saying they had no idea about these biases and how much they wanted to do better. And so did the women. We are all in this together and we each have a responsibility to check our bias on all levels - and do better.


And then there’s leadership. I could write a book on this topic - in fact, I did - it’s called Lead Like A Woman, and it speaks deeply to changing models of leadership, the rise and necessity for feminine traits in all leaders regardless of gender, and the changes we can make on both individual empowerment and collective systemic change. I invite you to read that if you want to go deeper here, either as a woman or a gender ally.

Leadership must change. It must. When I was in any of my corporate roles, there wasn’t a great focus on the type of leader you were. Get the results, make things happen, try not to piss people off too much.

Most important? Get the results, at any cost.

But those days are gone. Yes, we need to get the results, of course, business is business. But business is so much more than just business. It’s a reflection of the world, of societies, of humanity. It’s not enough anymore, nor should it ever have been. Leadership styles that depend on driving ambition for sole success, improvements at any cost, working people into the ground, relentless focus on short term outcomes, authoritarian styles and fear tactics, and exclusion of anyone who doesn’t look like or act like ‘the norm’ are no longer wanted or being tolerated by those being led. And in most cases, they are no longer getting the outcomes they used to.

It’s time for change. For what the researchers call feminine traits to be balanced with what we know as masculine traits. For not just diverse teams and businesses, but inclusive ones that truly respect every voice, every person for the unique contribution they have to make.

Leadership that values vulnerability, empathy, intuition, kindness and yes even LOVE as core to doing good business (get comfortable with it, there’s a movement coming). Core to being a good leader. Core to building a diverse, inclusive and gender equal workplace that reflects the world we live in and the humanity that we all should all strive to live with.

It’s time. So far beyond time.

Leadership starts with us. Each and every one of us. Each and every day. Choosing to lead. Choosing to speak up. Choosing to do what’s right over what’s easy. To call out bias. To be inclusive. To use our voice for those who can’t use their own. To check our privilege. To be present and awake to the world we live. To be awake to where there is inequity. To care. To do better.

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