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In Tennis, As in Business, Gender Bias Must Stop

Strategies to overcome double standards at work


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The headlines from Serena Williams' recent match at the U.S. Open are something we should be talking about in the business community.

During the second set of Naomi Osaka's victory over Williams, chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued a warning to Williams about receiving coaching from over the stands. Following the warning, Williams verbally protested and later smashed her racket, earning a one-point penalty. The last transgression saw Williams call Ramos a "liar" and "a thief." Ramos then penalized her the game for verbal abuse – an act that's virtually unheard of in a match of such importance.

Examining the situation in a vacuum, Williams' on-court behavior – verbally abusing an official – is unacceptable. But the letter of the law is not always evenly applied, and many have questioned Ramos' intent, including women's tennis icon Billie Jean King, who called Ramos' actions an "abuse of power." "When a woman is emotional, she's 'hysterical' and she's penalized for it," King said. "When a man does the same, he's 'outspoken' and there are no repercussions."

In addition to a myriad of headlines, the controversy sparked an important conversation about the double-standards president in the implementation of disciplinary action in professional tennis. Consider the case of one of the most famous male tennis players of all time, John McEnroe. Known for his explosive outbursts, McEnroe often challenged calls and slapped rackets on the ground – but he's praised as a competitor. Dominic Thiem has cracked a few rackets this season, too, but when Williams (or Karolina Pliskova) does the same thing, she's disrespectful to the sport? Worse yet, the neutral or sympathetic coverage of male players’ transgressions highlights the double-standard surrounding a woman’s right to express her frustration on the court.

GENDER BIAS IN THE WORKPLACE

Williams post-match tears of frustration are all too familiar to women everywhere, in all walks of life, and they highlight the righteous anger that results from being treated and punished unfairly, based on gender. I've seen the same gender double-standard applied in the workplace, and I've seen the consequences it has for team productivity and success.

As a CEO, when I'm working with my team to drive results, I'm aware of the risk that a message delivered with urgency is sometimes mistaken for a message delivered with emotion.

While I do experience emotions in the workplace, this experience isn't isolated to me just because I'm a woman. Emotions are a human response, not just a female response, and I've seen how team results are impacted when a message is judged differently based on who delivers it. 

Even in today's business world, when male executives share a message with urgency – and perhaps a touch of emotion – they are often treated like someone who is in charge – an authoritative leader. But when a woman communicates the exact same way, she's immediately labeled as hysterical, aggressive or overbearing – sometimes even the "b-word."

.” The issue here arises when the message is discounted or ignored on the basis that it came from a woman; consequently, risk is introduced to your business in the form of an inability to mobilize and take swift action when necessary. Judgments are made on the speaker, distracting from the content.

IMPACT ON GENDER BIAS

As a leader, my company looks to me, and expects me to guide them to success by creating lasting growth, outperforming our competition and driving winning results. But if my teams discount my response to a challenging situation as overly emotional, then my message is automatically diluted, and critical elements are missed, hindering our ability to respond quickly and appropriately to market demands.

I’ve seen this same bias applied to my employees. Your employees are on the front lines interacting with your customers, responding in real-time to market feedback and driving your business forward. Challenges your employees are facing are likely related to challenges your customers are facing. When issues arise, strong leaders efficiently gather data and make informed decisions.

Admittedly, some of this emotion is well-placed, and other times, it’s not. This is when the skill of discernment is critical to your success. Exercising discipline to challenge your internally held biases and work with clarity within the bounds of gender double-standards will strengthen your discernment and fact-finding ability in difficult conversations.

I’ve also seen how gender bias prevents an empowered female workforce.

If I have a team of females that succumb to self-sabotaging endeavors, feel unable to approach leadership with customer feedback or hold back their professional development, I’m leaving valuable talent and insight on the table. It is my responsibility to empower every employee on my team, both male and female, to creatively solve business problems, to care for our clients and to build a culture of respect. Only empowered employees are able to do this, and here again, bias and double-standards would only serve to limit my ability to empower, engage and inspire our team.

STRATEGIES TO OVERCOME GENDER BIAS AT WORK

Our executive team at AppIt Ventures has developed a culture based on trust and transparency while learning to challenge the way we react to emotional responses from our employees of either gender.

We’ve also built diverse teams that include both men and women in pivotal roles that extend beyond stereotypes. Our hiring strategy and our culture design has allowed us to build high-performing teams built on a foundation of both diversity and inclusion — we make sure everyone has an equal seat at the table, and this has yielded measurable benefits not only for our business but for our customers as well.  

To close the pay gap, we have researched Denver-area pay by role and experience level and are committed to paying those wages. Honesty and transparency are core values of ours, so we start our entire recruiting process with those parameters and it always works well for us.

The workplace gender double-standard affects all employees, whether male or female, by creating a culture of divisiveness, disrespect and inequality. A workplace that creates and enforces stereotypes surrounding how women should behave negatively impacts the productivity of all employees and cuts off creativity. Companies hoping to grow need to acknowledge this dangerous double-standard and encourage women to grow beyond constrained clichés and traditional roles and stereotypes by empowering them to reach their full potential.

What happened to Serena Williams highlights the subtler ways females face gender bias. While tennis is a game to spectators, it’s Williams’ job. During the post-match interview, Williams said, “I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality. The fact that I have to go through this is an example. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”

I’d encourage sports fans and business leaders alike to take note and think of ways to make strides toward eliminating gender double-standards. Your business may just thrive because of it.


Amanda Moriuchi is the CEO of AppIt Ventures, a Denver-based custom software development company specializing in web and mobile app development and emerging technologies such as machine learning and AI, as well as the founder of the successful meetup, Denver Women in Tech.

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