When Ariella Steinhorn, 27, left an early-career job after an incident of sexual harassment in 2018, she was hopeful that her next opportunity would lead her to a more inclusive and respectful office culture. A communications specialist, Steinhorn decided to join an engineer-heavy tech company that needed a brand storyteller — and stepped into a small team of mostly men.
“I was still pretty young,” Steinhorn said. “I wasn’t feeling financially stable, so I moved quickly to another small tech company in New York. I sort of jumped from the frying pan to the fire.”
The new job wasn’t what she’d hoped for, Steinhorn said. Instead, she was met with microaggressions from male leadership and co-workers: A male founder of the company was unwilling to meet with her one-on-one, she said, and male co-workers generally ignored her in the office. After a couple of months trying to make things work with the small team, a male colleague warned Steinhorn that she should quit her position because leadership no longer wanted to work with her.
“I was getting iced out of meetings, and trying to be super positive. They wouldn’t acknowledge me,” Steinhorn said. “It was miserable.”
Steinhorn ended up getting sick. Her body broke out in hives from the stress, she said, and then she lost her voice. As she put it: “My body was telling me, ‘You need to get out of this situation.’ ”
Steinhorn’s experience in the workplace isn’t isolated, according to data. A 2020 analysis by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org found that nearly two-thirds of women face microaggressions as a reality of their everyday work environment.
Women of color — particularly Black women — experience a greater variety of microaggressions and are more likely to be questioned and asked to provide additional evidence of competence in their area of expertise, the report found.
Gender bias and discrimination like this has been well-documented for years. But a survey published earlier this year sheds light on one reason it may persist: It found that men don’t notice the prevalence of discrimination at the same rate as women. With men outnumbering women in management, that can contribute to an overall culture similar to what Steinhorn experienced.
The study, conducted by Stanford Biodesign, found that 90 percent of respondents worked in a company where a majority of senior leaders were men. Of the men who responded to the survey, 80 percent believed their workplace “empowers women to reach their full potential,” while only 36 percent of women respondents agreed.
The survey looked specifically at midsized health technology companies, and included responses from more than 400 individuals. It’s important to note the limitations of the study: namely, that the overall number of survey responses represents a small proportion of the industry and that participants were self-selecting. Additionally, substantially more women than men participated.
But this “perception gap” bore out in Steinhorn’s experience. When she brought up several instances of gender bias in a meeting, her colleagues were aghast, she said.
“They told me that people fabricate things to make them feel better about their shortcomings,” Steinhorn said. “If you asked them, they would claim I wasn’t a culture fit because I wasn’t technical. But they knew, hiring me, that I was not.”
Katy, a clerk at a progressive employment rights law firm in Minneapolis, said the perception gap plays a large part in her firm’s dynamics, too.
“At our firm, everything I’ve experienced or heard others have experienced is more microaggressions, things like being interrupted or talked over,” said Katy, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used out of fear of professional retaliation. “There’s this idea in some offices like ours, where if everyone there is liberal and dedicating their career to doing good, they’re somehow immune to these implicit biases. Men don’t think about it like we have to every day.”
It’s exhausting, Katy said, to undergo gender-based harassment on her way to work on public transit, only to get to the office and find herself experiencing a different brand of microaggression. She said she found it especially jarring to face those microaggressions from attorneys whose jobs involve advocating for victims of workplace discrimination in court.
As the director for academic programs at Stanford Biodesign and a lecturer at the Stanford School of Medicine, Lyn Denend, the lead study author, said she has herself experienced gender bias and discrimination in academia. She noticed gender roles playing out at big education events, where the female staff members would run around on breaks and tidy up the space to maintain professionalism. According to Denend, their male counterparts would grab coffee and network with each other.
“I would plan for a meeting, run the meeting, lead decision-making, and at the end people would give their handouts to me to recycle,” Denend said.
When Denend heard about a particularly troubling gender-discrimination incident from fellows in her program, she was shocked that other male faculty members sounded surprised to hear about their female counterparts’ experiences. So she and other faculty members made it a point to study the perception gap.
Analyzing the results from their survey — which asked questions related to workplace demographics, career paths, mentoring opportunities and family life — Denend and her team found that the perception gap persisted in men’s ideas of what held women back professionally. Men commonly attributed women’s desire to balance work and family to a lack of professional success or opportunity. Women, on the other hand, felt their most commonly faced barriers to advancement were stereotyping and exclusion from influential networks.
Given these findings, Denend and her team also wrote about their strategy to combat the perception gap, citing a “small wins” approach developed by Shelley J. Correll, a professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford.
“A lot of time initiatives fail because they are very lofty,” Denend said. “If you can start with small incremental changes that build momentum, positive results will build more positive results. The small wins approach seemed like a great way to get going.”
Denend published an article in Harvard Business Review that outlines 10 small wins for companies to adapt to fight gender discrimination, including tactics like noting different communication styles in meetings, offering flexible work options and avoiding assumptions about the roles that certain employees might be willing to undertake. For example: “Give credit where credit is due,” she and her co-authors wrote. “Identify and acknowledge where ideas originate. Don’t be distracted by who speaks loudest or last.”
These guidelines may be especially helpful for employees who aren’t necessarily aware of their implicit gender bias. “You can be a good person and perpetuate harmful behavior,” Denend said. “There’s a lot of work still to do, but it feels like we’ve initiated a cultural change.”
After the meeting in which her male colleagues brushed off her complaints, Steinhorn eventually left the company. She started consulting and built her own business that connected people in similar discriminatory employment situations with employment lawyers, career coaches and other resources. She now leads a firm that helps companies and individuals realize their stories through media, focusing on social impact and empathy.
“I get to work with a lot of really brave people who are telling stories of abuse of power or workplace issues,” Steinhorn said. “I’ve gone through the stages of emotions, and I’m at peace with [my situation]. I savor my new business. It’s great to be building this.”