Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

Addressing Gender Bias Requires Support from Workplaces, Colleagues

woman looking annoyed in an office environment, with two men shaking hands behind her.

In 2019, a group of former PepsiCo executives were having dinner together when the conversation turned to gender bias in the workplace. The group started to share “little moments that made us feel like we didn’t fully belong—that we couldn’t fully bring our full selves to work,” Lori Tauber Marcus explained during a panel discussion June 25 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2024 (SHRM24), held in Chicago and virtually.

After that dinner conversation, the group formed The Band of Sisters to fight unconscious bias in the workplace.

For panelist Katie Lacey, who most recently served as president and CEO of Crane Stationery, that moment when she felt she couldn’t be completely herself was during a performance review. It was going well, she said, until her boss gave her advice that she didn’t find helpful: “You should smile more.”

Marcus, who spent 24 years at PepsiCo and has held executive roles at The Children’s Place Retail Stores, Keurig Green Mountain, and Peloton Interactive, was told the opposite—that she should smile less. “I was told I needed to have more gravitas,” she said.

Another panelist and Band of Sisters member, Angelique Bellmer Krembs, got a different piece of advice during a performance review: “In order to get to the next level, you need to be seen breaking glass.” For her, that translated to: “You don’t belong here.”

For Mitzi Short, now an executive coach and speaker, the bias she experienced stemmed from the fact that she consistently was the only woman of color in the room. “As being one of the few and one of the only, oftentimes you are thought of as, ‘You can speak for everybody who is a woman of color,’ ” she said. “That’s an interesting burden to have to bear.”

Cie Nicholson, who currently serves as public board director for Selective Insurance, was a closeted lesbian for much of her career, and she often felt like she didn’t relate to others and didn’t belong in the workplace.

“We are still shocked that … all these small micro-moments are still happening today,” Nicholson said.

And all those moments add up to create a big problem.

“The walls of gender inequity are not built by one, two, or three big things that happen to you in your career. It’s the tiny little things. It’s day by day, minute by minute,” Lacey said. “And these things feel really petty, they feel insignificant … but they add up and they create this wall.”

That wall makes women feel like they don’t belong in a workplace and makes them consider opting out of the workplace because “there is no other option,” she added.

It all spells out a simple call to action: That change is needed. Female employees can and should advocate for themselves, the panelists said—from telling their bosses and organizations what they want in their career to applying for jobs they are qualified for—but one thing that is often missing is colleagues and managers speaking up and advocating for the female employees in their workplaces.

During the discussion, the panelists, who co-wrote the book You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace (City Point Press, 2022), shared some ideas:

Pay attention to how ideas are shared. Many have seen it before in the workplace: An idea someone suggests is overlooked before being repeated by someone else—and to fanfare. That often happens to women, Krembs said, and it can have detrimental effects. Research shows that one of the top reasons why women disengage in the workplace is because they feel like their ideas aren’t being heard. “If you hear someone repeat someone else’s idea, say something,” she said. “Say, ‘That was a great build on Katie’s idea.’ ”

Speak up about “lazy language.” There’s often “vague lazy language that holds women back”—things like “She’s not a great fit” or “She’s too emotional,” Marcus explained. By contrast, men often get “He’s a great guy,” which gives them “a little extra oomph and push,” Marcus said. “If you are a person in a room when you hear this, just do situation impact. If someone says, ‘She’s too emotional,’ say, ‘Can you say more about this?’ and push them to give examples and explain the impact.” Most of the time, the person who used the lazy language cannot expand on it, she said.

Pass on unwritten rules to other women in your organization. Early in Short’s career, she pitched an idea in front of her boss and other colleagues. Three other male colleagues pitched first and got minimal questions. When she was up, she felt like she received a full interrogation. After the meeting, she found out from her boss that there was a “meeting before the meeting”—that her male colleagues shared their ideas with the boss prior to the official presentation. “Why is it that women don’t often know these rules? Because oftentimes, they aren’t passed down through a training program,” Short said. “Pass along the unwritten rules to the other women in your organization.”

Remember that words are important. “Words matter; they set the tone,” Nicholson said. A lot of language being used is derogatory to women—like “girl” or “Debbie Downer”—yet empowering for men (“manpower,” or “ballsy,” for instance). It’s best to avoid gendered language, Nicholson said. “If you wouldn’t say it about a man, don’t say it about a woman,” she said.

Be an ally. “When you have the opportunity, be an active ally to someone,” Marcus said. “Be specific and pull them up.” Being not only a mentor, but a sponsor—someone who has access and is close to the organization’s power structure and can speak for a worker—is especially helpful for women of color or other members of underrepresented groups, Short added.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.