Four Patterns of Bias: Strategies, Tips, & Exercises
There are 4 main patterns of gender bias. Below you’ll find descriptions of each pattern, along with strategies that you can use to counter these biases. Beneath each pattern are links to interactive exercises that you can complete which will help you identify if each bias is happening to you and work out specific steps you can take to navigate around it. These interactive exercises are from the Center for WorkLife Law’s interactive Workbook, titled What Works for Women at Work: A Workbook.

Research was developed by Professor Joan C. Williams at the Center for WorkLife Law, and published in What Works for Women at Work.

1. Prove-It-Again!
If you scored “high” or “medium” Prove-It-Again! bias on the Bias Climate Quiz, here’s what you may be experiencing and how to take action:

Groups stereotyped as less competent often have to prove themselves over and over. “PIA groups” include women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, older employees, LGBT+ people, class migrants (professionals from blue-collar backgrounds), and sometimes introverted or modest men.

Patterns Strategies
  • PIA groups judged on achivements they’ve already accomplishments, whereas majority men judged on potential
  • PIA groups’ mistakes noticed & remembered more
  • PIA groups’ successes attributed to luck; men’s to skill
  • Objective rules applied leniently to majority men; rigidly to PIA groups
  • PIA groups get polarized evaluations
  • People from PIA groups may be more likely to experience the “stolen idea:” or have someone else take credit for their ideas in a meeting
Take Control:
  • Don’t wait to ask for promotion until you have all the requirements—majority men won’t
To counter the bias:
  • Figure out what objective metrics are important, and keep careful records to show you’ve nailed them
  • Keep track of compliments
  • Arm your mentors and allies to advocate for you
  • If you experience the stolen idea, counter in the moment by saying, “Thanks for picking up on that idea! You’ve added something important. What’s the next step?”
Free Interactive exercise from our workbook.
Search our publications for further research on Prove-It-Again bias
2. The Tightrope
If you scored “high” or “medium” Tightrope bias on the Bias Climate Quiz, here’s what you may be experiencing and how to take action:

A narrower range of workplace behavior often is accepted from women and people of color (“TR
groups”). Class migrants (professionals from blue-collar backgrounds) and modest or introverted men can face
Tightrope problems, too.

Patterns Strategies
Too feminine?
  • Leader or worker bee?
    • TR groups face pressure to be “worker bees” who work hard and are undemanding…but if they comply, they lack “leadership potential.”
  • Modest, helpful, nice; dutiful daughter, office mom?
    • Prescriptive stereotypes create pressures on women to be modest, mild-mannered team players—so “ambitious” is not a compliment for women and niceness may be optional for men but required of women.
  • Direct, competitive, and assertive behaviors in majority men
    may be seen as inappropriate in TR groups —“tactless,” “selfish,” “difficult” “abrasive.”
  • Anger that’s accepted from majority men may be seen as inappropriate or even threatening in TR groups.
  • TR groups report less access to career-enhancing
    opportunities and more “office housework”—planning parties & cleaning up; taking notes & arranging meeting times; mentoring & being the peacemaker).
  • The kind of self-promotion that works for majority men may be seen as off-putting in TR groups. Modest men may encounter bias about how “real men” should behave. Strong modesty norms can make class migrants, Asian-Americans, and women uncomfortable with self-promotion.
  • Asian-Americans are stereotyped as passive and lacking in social skills; African-Americans as angry or too aggressive: Latinos as hotheaded or emotional.
Take control:
    • Not everyone has to like you
    • Lose the hedges and state what you think with quiet confidence


To counter the bias:
  • For office housework
    • “Let’s set up a rotation”
    • The strategic “no”
    • “Do you want me to follow up with [admin], or would you like to do that?
    • Try gender judo to avoid backlash for assertive behavior.
    • Use the posse and the team to help with self-promotion
    • “If I look angry it’s because I am angry, because you’ve jeopardized [insert shared goal]”
Free Interactive exercise from our workbook.
Read our article on Harvard Business Review covering one of the most important aspects of combating tightrope bias: Helping Managers Assign Work Fairly.
3. Parental Wall
If you scored “high” or “medium” Parental Wall bias on the Bias Climate Quiz, here’s what you may be experiencing and how to take action:

Motherhood triggers the strongest form of gender bias. The Parental Wall can affect both fathers and mothers—as well as employees without children.

Patterns Strategies
  • Motherhood triggers strong assumptions (in yourself and in others) that you’re no longer committed/competent
  • Benevolent bias: “I didn’t consider you because I know it’s not a good time for you”
  • Hostile bias: “My wife could never leave her kids like that”
  • Women without children may be assumed to be always available for work because they have “no life”
  • Fathers face expectations that they will not—or should not—take time off for caregiving. They may be seen as deserving more pay or promotion because of their presumed
    family role.
The First Step:
  • Do what you enjoy with your children and delegate the rest without guilt
  • Don’t confuse performance pressure with good parenting
  • Make sure your partner is really a partner.
Counter stereotypes with information:
  • When you return from maternity leave, ask for a meeting to discuss your career goals.
  • If you are willing to travel, say so.
  • If you are the primary earner, say so.
  • If you are out of the office on business, leave a note saying where you are.
  • If you have to do something with your kids, schedule it as an appointment outside the office.
  • “How can you work so much? Don’t your kids miss you?: “Happy families are not all alike.”
Free Interactive exercise from our workbook.
Resources on how to navigate higher education while pregnant and parenting are available at The Pregnant Scholar.
Did you know that discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities is illegal? Learn more about the work that WorkLife Law has done to protect working people and their families
Resources on how to navigate the workplace while pregnant and breastfeeding with our nonprofit project [email protected]
4. Tug of War
If you scored “high” or “medium” Tug of War bias on the Bias Climate Quiz, here’s what you may be experiencing and how to take action:

Sometimes bias creates conflict within underrepresented groups. The Tug of War happens when a biased environment at work makes people in the same demographic group feel like they are pitted against each other

Patterns Strategies
  •  If people feel there’s only one slot per group for a prized position, group members may be pitted against each other to get it.
  • People from underrepresented groups may feel they need to distance themselves from others of their group, or align with the majority against their own group, in order to get ahead.
  • Prove-It-Again! pass-through: People from underrepresented groups may hold members of their own groups to higher standards because “That’s what it takes to succeed here.”
  • Tightrope pass-through: Women may fault each other for being too masculine—or too feminine. People of color may fault each other for being “too white”—or not “white” enough.
  • Maternal Wall pass-through: Parents may fault each other for handling parenthood the wrong way—for taking too much time off or too little.
Take Control:
  • Do majority men always support majority men? No. Try not to hold members of your group to higher standards.
  • If there’s a queen bee, often it’s a symptom of gender bias in the environment.
  • Remember: there’s no wrong way to be a woman/person of color/dad etc.
  • Remember: there are many different ways to be a good mother.
Strategies to combat the bias:
  • Make an enemy into an ally: “I perceive—and I may not be correct—we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot and I would like to have a good relationship with you…”
  • Get group members working together (and not just on issues specific to your group).
  • Senior women: remember younger women’s experience is different.
  • Junior women: senior women may not have as much power as you think
Free Interactive exercise from our workbook.
More on our research and findings on how different displays of the tug-of-war bias are affecting the workplace.

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New Report: Pinning Down the Jellyfish: The Workplace Experiences of Women of Color in Tech   Read Here