Susan Madsen: Do the ‘sexist’ comments at Silicon Slopes really matter?

At the recent Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, a local CEO got himself into hot water, implying the women in attendance were only there to ogle baseball great Alex Rodriguez.

He later apologized for making a “bad joke.” Yet, many in attendance felt his apology missed the mark entirely. And many felt that asking women to stand and applaud for A-Rod, like participants in a bachelor auction, demeaned all parties. I tend to agree. One can debate whether his motives were clueless or malicious, but one thing is clear: This incident reveals that many men (and women, too) are operating with unconscious bias towards women in the workplace.

Unconscious bias is hard to combat because, by its very definition, we are unaware of the assumptions we impose on certain groups. In a recent research brief published by the Utah Women & Leadership Project entitled “The Strategies Male Allies Use to Advance Women in the Workplace,” many of the women interviewed cited that implicit or unconscious bias has hurt their careers.

One woman mentioned repeatedly being asked to take notes at meetings where she was the only female present. Others commented that they were not invited to participate in important work events that happened on weekends or evenings — the assumption being the women had to stay home and take care of the kids.

I’ve seen subtle bias in my own career. While getting a doctorate degree years ago, several people commented how good it was of my husband to “allow” me to pursue my goals. And, when my children were young, people would ask if my husband was “babysitting,” implying it’s a favor to me and not a basic parental responsibility. They were not trying to be rude. They just didn’t realize their biases were coming through.

Such bias is especially tricky because these beliefs can actually go against our conscious values. For example, I boarded a plane once where both pilots were women and — I’m embarrassed to admit it — caught myself feeling surprised. Despite my years of promoting girls and women in education and leadership, there was a vestige of sexism in my ideas about who flies planes.

Most of us are good people with good intentions, but we still need to be educated on being better allies to women. In our survey, almost every woman mentioned specific ways that men could support them. A few examples include, “Be aware of the ways women are perceived as aggressive, emotional, bossy.” “Never make a woman the butt of a joke.” and “Men need to stop objectifying us.” Simple suggestions with huge implications.

While most men who read about the Tech Summit debacle are thinking, “I would never do that!” (and most wouldn’t), we need to recognize that this is just an extreme version of what goes on every day in offices all over Utah and beyond. Until we examine our unconscious beliefs, real progress toward gender equity will remain a future dream. We must all work to minimize these biases in order to elevate our organizations, and each other in the process.

Susan R. Madsen | Utah Valley University

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. She is also the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.