May 10, 2013

Gender Bias: Going Under, Over, Around, and Through It

Ann Farmer

During Victoria Pynchon’s earlier career as a commercial litigation lawyer in Los Angeles, one of her firm’s clients was Japanese car manufacturer Mitsubishi Motors. As an associate, she was second in charge of the account, although she was never included in business trips to Japan that the senior partner took. The only opportunity she had to meet her clients was when they came to LA, “and the evening’s activity was going to be a strip club,” says Pynchon, who was told to make her own decision about “whether it was appropriate for her.” Knowing how uncomfortable she’d feel, she said, “No, I’m not going to come. Have fun.”

Since then, Pynchon has authored books on mediation strategies and conflict resolution. She speaks at legal conferences about gender bias in the workplace. And she cofounded She Negotiates LLC, which trains women about how to foster better relationships with difficult bosses and coworkers and become “powerful askers” in their chosen professions.

Pynchon says if she knew then what she knows now, she would have said, “This is the one opportunity I have to meet with the client. It is not only beneficial for me to meet the client—since I do so much of the client’s work—I think it would be beneficial for the client to know me.” She would have suggested that they all go out to a nice restaurant. And afterward, if the others still wanted to go to a strip joint, fine. “But I didn’t do that,” Pynchon says, “because I was young.”

Gender bias would seem to have no place in the law profession, where the participants are focused on issues of justice and fairness. But look no further than at the paucity of women equity partners (about 15 percent) in the ranks of the 2012 Am Law 200 for proof that it still exists. Most of the time, though, “it’s not explicit gender bias; it’s unconsciousness,” Pynchon says. “It’s having a male point of view.”

A typical example is when “skill” in a man is viewed as “luck” in a woman. Or when a man who has trouble meeting a deadline is perceived as being “busy,” whereas a woman in the same situation “has trouble making her deadlines.”

These examples were included in a report issued a few years ago by Law Professor Joan C. Williams, who founded the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The report described controlled laboratory experiments by social psychologists that “documented how gender stereotyping and bias remain commonplace, though less overt, today,” Williams wrote. See

Pynchon thinks gender bias is relatively easy to spot. “It’s just that we tend to discount and ignore it,” she says, “because otherwise you’d be pissed off all the time.”

As a recent example, she points out the crack that this year’s Academy Awards host Seth MacFarlane made at the expense of women when he characterized Zero Dark Thirty and, in particular, Jessica Chastain’s CIA character, who relentlessly pursued leads about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, as “a celebration of every woman’s innate ability to never let anything go.” If the character were a guy, Pynchon says, it would have been his persistence, passion, drive, and ambition that drove him.

Building Trust

So what should a woman do when a male colleague in her law firm says something like, “Isn’t that just like a woman?” Pynchon says don’t give them a tongue lashing. “It’s not going to open up a fruitful conversation for you to begin by accusing someone of doing something wrong. That’s shaming them.”

When people are shamed, she observes, they are more likely to either withdraw or get into an argument. She also cautions women not to cry. “This doesn’t happen to me anymore, but when I was younger, if I got really angry, I tended to tear up, and I knew that was a bad thing to do,” she says, explaining that men are frightened by crying women.

Pynchon suggests that a better response is to engage the speaker in a nonthreatening conversation. She advises the observer to start with a question like, “That’s interesting. In what way is that just like a woman?” And be genuine about it, she emphasizes, because it’s easy for someone in such a defensive posture to come off sounding snarky and superior.

If a colleague appears genuinely biased against you, Pynchon recommends taking the same steps you’d use in interest-based negotiations, which begin with establishing trust. She says one of the best tools for building trust is small talk because it allows you to find commonalities. Get out of your office, stop using e-mail, and go have lunch. “Food raises the hormone oxytocin, which is the trust-building and monogamy-building hormone,” she explains.

Once you’re together, ask a lot of diagnostic questions. “My favorite open-ended question is, ‘What’s the biggest challenge that you’re facing in your work today?’” Pynchon says. “People are not going to refuse to answer that question.”

If a colleague says he can’t have lunch because he is swamped, offer your help. “Here is what women miss, and it is a truism in negotiation,” Pynchon says. “Negotiation doesn’t really start until someone says no. Women are used to taking no to be no. Men are not. That’s how you move past gender bias. Nobody’s biased against you if you’re helping them with matters critical to their well-being and if you’re genuinely curious about what’s going on with them.”

After a level of trust has been instilled, it’s easier to engage a man in a nonthreatening conversation about some sexist comment he made, Pynchon says, “and he will come to the point of being fair-minded because he doesn’t want to be a jerk.”

Look ’Em in the Eye

Other experts suggest an even more direct approach when dealing with gender bias. Martha M. Newman, cofounder of Top Lawyer Coach, LLC, in Dallas, employs coaching methods to help her clients. She recalls the time a talented and personable general counsel for a large company came to see her. “She had a work ethic that couldn’t be beaten,” says Newman, a former oil and gas litigator and TV news anchor. She explains that the general counsel’s all-male bosses seemed to appreciate her value as a lawyer. But when she attended board meetings, her suggestions regarding the business side of the operation were shrugged off. The men would make comments such as, “I don’t think you have very much experience in that area,” even when she did have valid experience.

Worse was when the men were stressed. “They’d shoot her down and embarrass her,” says Newman, adding that they would yell things like, “You need to be around longer to give an opinion on that subject.” The woman also was frustrated that she wasn’t being paid commensurate with the results she was achieving for the company.

“She needed to focus on gaining their respect by respecting herself,” says Newman, who coached her to speak up when hostility was directed to her unfairly. “I told her that the key was to remain calm and to speak in a deeper tone of voice,” which Newman says carries more credibility. “I told her to look them directly in the eye and tell them, in no uncertain terms, that the treatment she was receiving at that moment was unacceptable, and to say, ‘I’d appreciate it if you would address me in a polite way and I’ll be glad to answer your questions.’”

Newman also taught the general counsel to do some self-coaching—sort of a pep talk—before entering the boardroom as an affirmation of her ability to handle the tough situation. Newman says the woman never experienced their verbal abuse again—and subsequently she became the board’s executive vice president.

Sometimes women lawyers experience inappropriate attention of a more flirtatious nature, perhaps from clients. Unless it’s blatant, Newman says, “My take on handling sexual advances and sexual innuendos is to handle it with humor and just blow it off.” Afterward, she adds, “immediately change the subject.”

It is not just men, though, who engage in gender bias. In the boys’ club atmosphere that can prevail in a male-dominated firm, female colleagues will sometimes go along with locker-room comments because they don’t want to be considered a spoilsport. Or they can be guilty of making biased comments themselves. When this happens, Pynchon suggests engaging the speaker(s) in a private collective-well-being conversation starting with a comment about what was said, such as, “It kind of sounded a little to me like focusing too much on the fact that she’s a woman. And I worry that undermines us in the office.”

Newman cautions women lawyers about playing overt interference in a gender-bias incident. “It’s not a woman’s job to play defense for another woman,” she says. “People in business and the legal world are expected to self-advocate.” Newman suggests coaching your colleague instead. “Giving individual personal support to a fellow woman lawyer is much more effective than fighting her battles for her.”

Of course, there are always going to be those sexist colleagues who, no matter how you go about it, won’t want to listen or change. “I think with some of these guys you just note it,” Pynchon says. “When you reach a brick wall, it’s better to turn left or right than it is to get dynamite and try and blow it up.”

When You Spot Gender (or Other) Bias in the Workplace

Things to Do:

  1. Without being accusatory, seek the input of a trusted advisor if you do not feel comfortable initiating a conversation with someone in the office who has behaved in an offensive manner or has made an
    offensive remark.
  2. Reframe your own behavior in a positive way if you believe it might confirm a negative stereotype based on your gender. For example, explain that you tend to tear up when you’re angry or normalize your behavior
    (crying, for instance) by saying, “even congressmen cry. Look at John Boehner.”
  3. Have a nonaccusatory, problem-solving conversation.
  4. Cool down before you have a conversation with anyone about the behavior or comment.
  5. If a person said something so offensive that it leaves you speechless and you can’t think of a way to respond

Things Not to Do:

  1. Don’t make accusations, particularly if you haven’t determined if it’s actually a miscommunication.
  2. Don’t assign blame.
  3. Don’t argue, preach, or threaten.
  4. Don’t backbite, gossip, or spread rumors.
  5. Don’t simmer in resentment.
  6. Don’t despair of a solution to the problem.
  7. Unless you or someone else is being sexually harassed or bullied, don’t go to human resources. HR does not represent your interests; it represents the firm’s interests. 

Source: Victoria Pynchon at

Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist who covers breaking news for the New York Times and contributes stories on culture, law, crime, and other topics to publications including Emmy, DGA Quarterly, Budget Travel, and others.