How gender and other forms of bias can creep in to create a negative work environment and what companies can do about it.

How many men and how long does it take for a male-oriented culture to develop in a company? The answers are more complex than we think.

Such a culture doesn’t form overnight. There is usually no conscious attempt to create it. But it can take shape gradually through the cumulative effect of seemingly innocuous choices and decisions. A typical startup, for example, may have two male founders. As they seek to expand their team, they usually look within their own network. So the first round of hires are all men who are similar to the founders in their thinking and outlook. This trend may continue and before you know it, you have a large group of men who are very comfortable with each other – socially and professionally. It’s a setting that is like college in many ways where members share jokes and a lingo that they can all identify with. It’s just a few steps from this to a more machismo-driven environment where a particular group is dominant and others outside it feel marginalized.

Increasingly, we are witnessing the fallout of trends such as these around us. In the past, we thought of sexual harassment as isolated cases of bad behaviour by a few individuals. But it is becoming clear that a male-oriented workplace culture figures very heavily in a majority of these cases.

However, this is not always a gender-driven phenomenon. There are other forms of a ‘bro’ culture that can crop up based on the power dynamics in a company. A particular group may wield more power in an organization by virtue of specific skills such as the ability to speak English fluently. In these cases, the dominant subculture may include both men and women bound together by a common language and other shared interests. Often individuals from smaller towns in India who are more comfortable with their mother tongue than with English, report feeling edged out in such an environment. Again, this kind of divide is something that develops gradually and becomes entrenched over a period of time.

There are two main ways in which this can play out in the workplace. First, as a particular subculture becomes stronger, those who are not part of it may feel less comfortable speaking up about issues or challenges that they face. They may fear ridicule or worry about jeopardizing their careers by speaking up. Second, even those who have a lot in common with the dominant group but who are initially uncomfortable with its norms, may become accepting of these over a period of time. After all, people are driven to fit in as much as possible. Nobody wants to be seen as the office spoilsport. Such behavioral patterns, if left unchecked, can lead to a fairly toxic work culture over a period of time.

Since recruiting is key to building diversity in a team, one area that companies should pay more attention to is in the way they describe roles and ideal candidate profiles. Studies indicate that, when it comes to job descriptions, words clearly matter.

Unconscious bias may creep into job ads without employers realizing it. For example, researchers have found that the word ‘manage’ in a job posting encouraged more men than women to apply. Replacing ‘manage’ with ‘develop’ helped to neutralize this bias. Other words with a more ‘masculine’ orientation when it comes to job ads include ‘competitive’ and ‘leader’. Words such as ‘support’ and ‘interpersonal’, on the other hand, are more likely to draw women in.

Beyond words, even images – those of an all-male leadership team, for example – may give women non-verbal clues regarding work culture and make them think twice about applying for an open position.

This partly stems from a key difference in how men and women view the challenges of a given role and their own ability to take these on. It boils down to confidence and is an issue that women leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg have talked about in the past. Generally women, unlike men, make a bid for a job only when they feel absolutely confident that they can handle it. Given such inherent tendencies, gender-biased job descriptions can potentially eliminate many women from the pool.

It is possible to remedy such situations with some effort and forethought. Companies should go beyond just creating a list of dos and don’ts and strive to cultivate an environment where anybody – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, native language or anything else – can feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and concerns. It is important to have gender-neutral and related policies to weed out biases that impact hiring, promotion and compensation decisions. Another critical factor in this exercise is buy-in from the top. Once founders or leaders of a company throw their weight behind this initiative, it has a much higher chance of taking root and succeeding.

However, unless there is a parallel shift in mindset regarding some issues, policies by themselves may not help to bring about change. For example, extended paternity leave is something that would allow many women to stay in the workforce when they have children. However, we have a tendency in our society to view nurturing and childcare as feminine responsibilities and it is hard to shatter this bias through policy alone.

The good news is that even the smallest startups today are willing to invest in conversations on these issues. Many begin exploring a gender neutral policy voluntarily and not due to any compliance-related pressure. They recognize that talent is one of their biggest assets and that they can’t afford to be associated with a negative workplace if they have to attract the right people.

At the same time, women and others who feel targeted in any way are willing to step up and talk about what they have experienced. This is again a shift from a time when such complaints were dismissed or brushed under the carpet. As old taboos lift and new norms emerge, more and more companies will reject toxicity in favour of inclusive and welcoming workspaces.

As communicated to Viewpoint.


Ishani Roy is the founder of Serein, a consulting firm...