Breaking Through Bias | Book Review

“… most senior men don’t have a clue about how much harder it is
for a woman to succeed in a career than it is for a man.”
(p. xvii)

Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris, married former law partners, tackle a sensitive yet significant challenge -- how to deal with gender bias. We can consider their work a companion to Dr. Mindy Hall’s terrific book Leading with Intention, and Susan Packard’s New Rules of the Game. Aspiring and professional women are a natural audience for Kramer and Harris, but any genuine leader-coach will welcome the author’s shared stories, or insights, overlooked by many, if not most men.  

Breaking Through Bias is structured similarly to Leadership Conversations, with Part II focused on Conversations with Yourself and Part III focused on Conversations with Others. Part IV, Communicating in Difficult Situations, is the primary section of the book, and like Crucial Conversations, offers practical solutions for communications challenges encountered daily.

Kramer shares early professional discoveries (p. xii):

• First, I learned that there are truly gender-neutral workplaces, but these are a precious few.
• Second, I learned that if women are going to advance as they aspire to -- then they cannot passively accept the current gender-skewed state of affairs.
• Third, I realized that successful women deal with gender stereotypes through nuanced and carefully honed communication techniques.

Breaking Through Bias largely focuses on Kramer’s third point, often referencing the Goldilocks dilemma:

Unless you use nonverbal behavior that has strong associations with power and competence, you will never be seen as a leader. The danger, therefore, is that these attitudes can backfire unless you can pair them with communal behavior that projects warmth, inclusiveness, and social sensitivity (pp. 76-77).

A useful Key Words and Phrases glossary is offered (pp. xxvii-xxx), and two aid with this review:

Agentic: Stereotypically masculine traits such as tough-minded, aggressive, confident, competent, independent, and assertive. 

Attuned gender communication: The ability to communicate in ways that avoid, dispel, or overcome gender bias. There are four pieces to this (p. xxii):

• The cultivation and active use of four key attitudes
• High self-awareness or self-monitoring
• Commitment to managing impressions you make
• The ability to use a variety of communication techniques 

This review aligns findings from Parts I-IV with relevant Academy Leadership workshops and an overall coaching mindset.

Part I | The Landscape | Self-Awareness

Psychological and sociological studies make clear that virtually all of us have implicit biases against groups that are different from us (p. 4). In our Academy Leadership Energize2Lead, or E2L, Workshops, a key takeaway is that 75% of people are wired differently than we are, and we often have “blind spots.” Academy Leadership’s 25,000 E2L evaluations and numerous workshops confirm these findings.

So, we’re already hard wired for bias. Intensifying the challenge, the stereotypes we hold about people of both sexes are unique for at least four reasons (pp. 5-6). 

• When we assign a person to one sex category or the other, that’s the end of the matter
• We cannot choose not to assign a person to one sex or the other
• We sort people by sex as soon as we hear or see them
• A person’s sex cuts across all other categories 

Needless to say, this finding amplifies the importance of self-awareness for any leader. Consider expectations we have grown up with. According to the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI – 2004), people expect women to be more affectionate, sensitive, warm, and concerned with making others feel more at ease (p. 6).

The sources of stereotyping are not only external though. Exacerbating biased expectations, women also hold stereotypes about themselves: their talents, capacities, resources, and appropriate objectives and activities (p. 21), with three basic stereotype threat situations often preventing a woman from playing at the top of her game (p. 22):

• When a woman feels her performance will reflect on other women, she may become excessively concerned about failure.
• In solving problems that women are stereotypically expected not to perform well at, a woman can become excessively concerned about trying to disprove the theory.
• If a woman is aware of a negative stereotype regarding women’s ability to perform a specific task, she may lose confidence in her ability to perform the task. 

Recall from our Coaching to Develop People workshop, that performance coaching is the process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more successful. Kramer and Harris likewise advise women to make a concerted effort to think about your strengths, experiences, and potential rather than your gender (p. 23).

Part II | Self-Coaching | Journaling

Harris and Kramer describe the typical mixed-gender business meeting where participants are likely to hold at least three stereotypes (pp. 39-40):

• They will expect the men to be agentic, that is, tough-minded, aggressive, confident, competent, independent, and assertive.
• They will expect the women to be communal, that is, friendly, unselfish, warm, kind, compassionate, supportive, and nurturing (p. 40).
• They will expect anyone capable of leading the meeting to be agentic. 

This is a classic example of the Goldilocks dilemma, calling out the need for impression management. Kramer and Harris define impression management as the conscious control of what and how you are communicating in an effort to shape the impressions people have of you (p. 42). Or, more simply, influence.

To manage impressions effectively, two key factors are offered (p. 42):

• A high degree of self-awareness
• An ability to use a variety of communication techniques to change the impressions you are making 

Harris and Kramer go further, expressing concern for the key attitudes for career success – grit, a positive perspective on your abilities, a coping sense of humor, and a confident self-image (p. 55). How can one cultivate this?

Try journaling. During introductory remarks at the beginning of an Academy Leadership Excellence Course, attendees discuss the benefits of journaling and receive a journal for use during the three day program.

Kramer and Harris advise that we journal about positive leadership experiences. One way to prime your own mind is to take a short period of time to think in a focused way – best done by writing – about an occasion when you felt particularly powerful, a time of great happiness, or the achievements you have already made (p. 65).

Part III | E2L Expectations & Blindsides

Let’s recall two things about our E2L profiles. First, if we are dominant in our blue color trait, we are likely adept at reading non-verbal communication in others. That is a big deal according to Harris and Kramer, as the ability to manage your impressions depends to a significant extent on your ability to manage your nonverbal behavior (p. 75). If we are blind in our blue E2L color traits, this may present a significant challenge.

Second, people want to be approached according to their expectations profile. Many E2L profiles are dominant yellow-blue, and people with these traits prefer that their “why” questions be answered and not be told how to do things. Being able to speak and write with ease and grace, you can effectively present yourself and your ideas without triggering the negative reactions that women so frequently encounter when they seek to demonstrate their leadership behavior (p. 93).

This does not mean selling yourself short. Women often undermine their own credibility by deprecating the value or relevance of their own ideas (p. 102). It’s another case of the Goldilocks dilemma. Don’t discount yourself, and at the same time, when working with senior colleagues, don’t expect them to conform to your preferred way of communicating (p. 107).

Part IV | High Payoff Activities (HPAs)

During our Setting Leadership Priorities workshops, we identify and focus on High Payoff Activities (HPAs), the specific activities which lead to performance results, for ourselves and our organizations. Further, if our HPAs are aligned with the organization’s, we’re in a good position to clarify priorities when competing requests surface.

Harris and Kramer call out three specific situations that pose the greatest difficulties for women to say no (p. 117):

• Requests to perform a task or take on a project that will not contribute in a meaningful way to advancing your career.
• Requests to perform a task or take on a project that will clearly advance your career, but which come at a time when you are already very busy.
• Requests you receive to change your job position when the career implications of this change are unclear 

Clarity of priorities also offers an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Consider meetings, which provide some of the best opportunities to demonstrate your competence and leadership abilities (p. 131). In Chapter 10 of Dr. Mindy Hall’s Leading with Intention, she shares the 2 + 2 rule, or having two specific questions to ask and two specific items to share prepared before any meeting. Since a 2012 study found that men spoke 75 percent of the time at professional meetings even when women and men were present in equal numbers (p. 141), this may require a mild interruption, but over time, you’ll be known as both a knowledgeable and inquisitive leader.

Kramer and Harris additionally recommend using meetings as occasions to network, display your unique perspectives, and showcase your abilities (p. 132). How best to do this? Your most effective approach to self-promotion involves three pieces (p. 148):

• You need to make a clear, strong, supported case for yourself.
• You need to make this case in an inviting, pleasant, “I’m on your team” way.
• You need to score enough “goals” to even the score with your male competitors. 


This book is an extended argument about how women can achieve career success and why most of what they have been told about how to do this is wrong or unhelpful (p. 177).

A special message to male leaders:

“We also hope men will start to mentor and sponsor women,
call out their male colleagues who behave in biased and
exclusionary ways, and support initiatives to assure women
get a fair shot at getting to the top.”
(p. xxiv)

Note: Andrea Kramer generously provided a copy of their book for review.

JE | January 2019