The Language of Bias

Posted on July 31, 2012.

I’m really happy for Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo CEO. She’s obviously a talented, intelligent executive.  But when her promotion made headlines, it wasn’t about the fact that she was only 37, or about her success at Google. It was Marissa Mayer is pregnant. Would that have been the headline if a man took the job and his wife was expecting?

Never. Do we unintentionally discriminate just by the words, phrases or questions we ask?  My friend is a founder/CEO of a very successful company. We had lunch recently and talked about the Mayer headlines. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one who felt the headline was off base.  She mentioned that whenever she would connect with colleagues they always asked first about her children. Which is nice and I’m sure heartfelt, but what would you ask a male colleague you haven’t seen in awhile? How about, “played any golf lately””, or “how your team doing?” Unless you’re personal friends, the conversation rarely centers on the male colleagues family.

I have another male friend with a high-powered job and four kids at home.  Never, and I mean never, have I ever heard anyone ask him, “How do you balance it all? “ Off handed comments and small talk may not seem that destructive, but when you have separate kinds of conversations between men and women, one more personal than professional, you undermine the importance of her career.  You’ve essentially already decided that she clearly puts her family above her career. My question is, shouldn’t everyone?