THE BLOG

Gender Bias in the Workplace: The Invisible Line

01/07/2014 13:36 BST | Updated 30/08/2014 10:59 BST

"You are too black and white. You got close to crossing the line. You can seem a little, err, aggressive. You're great at this but could you soften?"

As I have what I hope is a pretty good degree of self awareness I am generally not surprised by feedback. It's always helpful to understand how others see me. But at what point does 'feedback' become gender biased? When should you brush off the opinions of (largely) men as you don't quite conform to the ideal of femininity they are used to. At what point (and why?) do you become threatening to the degree that people feel compelled to use this kind of language - and where is this line that I allegedly dared to cross?

It drives me batty. I dedicate a fair amount of time to mentoring younger women in my industry, and whilst that's really fulfilling, there are times when I still need someone to coach or mentor me. Because the casual slights of a patriarchal industry may become more subtle, but they are still definitely lurking there. . And it takes a nuanced approach to deal with it; sometimes to call it out there and then and bat it right back, at other times, a need to smile with dignity, reserve comment and use it later on.

One of the most important characteristics I've applied to my working life, and thanks to my parents for this, is having confidence and giving it to others , be that to colleagues or clients.. I read with interest 'Executive Presence', a new book on women in the workplace by Sylvia Hewitt. For her the secret of female success is confidence, poise, and authority and whilst I don't agree with it all, I do agree that having confidence, to 'sit at the table' and 'lean in' (copyright Ms Sandberg!) iscrucial for women. You can get it however you need to; with coaching, by faking it until you develop it for real, by being brave, by dressing the part. Choose your path, but you have to find it and embrace it.

There is an art to carrying confidence. There are techniques to help with toning it up and down; when to use silence, when to be super clear, when to ask an awkward question, how to diffuse tension or conversely how to thrive in debate and get the outcome you want. Is there any difference to a woman doing this vs a man? No. But a perception issue lingers as our societal norm still dictates that women do by default, and should, collaborate, seek consensus and stay quieter than male counterparts who have always been taught that competition is good, that they are serious by default and that talking over others and dominating a room is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged.

But at what stage does confidence become arrogance? When does it make others uncomfortable? And why are the parameters different- for I truly believe they are - for women and men?

The advice becomes confusing; having been rewarded for openness, confidence and directness, when do these positive work attributes become too much of a good thing? And too much for who?

This blog raises questions for which I have few answers. I'm still unsure what or where the line is that I'm alleged to have almost crossed, but my hope is that - much like the really cool free kick lines sprayed on by the World Cup referees, any persisting lines will soon disappear so the game can continue fairly. And maybe that's the point; we evolve, we learn and we move on. But what I won't do is change who I am - to lose confidence is the worst that can happen.