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How to choose between fight-or-flight strategy when confronted with gender bias in the workplace

Baltimore City resident Michelle Gracie Richardson was thrilled when she auditioned for an independent film and was told by the director there that she would get the lead part.

But when the offer letter came, it was from the casting director, a man who knew another actress he wanted for the big part. The letter offered her a smaller side part. Richardson, 26, wasn’t sure what to do.

It’s a moment that many professional women have faced — what to do when you hoped for one job and it turns out it was offered to someone else? Or, another common scenario, what to do when you feel that gender bias may have played a role and the promotion will be given to a man instead?

Author Candace Steele Flippin is addressing the topic head on by offering women a plan for them to manage their career on their own terms, in the book “Get Your Career in SHAPE: A Five-Step Guide to Getting the Career You Need, Want, and Deserve.”

When Richardson heard Steele Flippin talk at a professional development and book signing event in Baltimore this summer, she was immediately brought back to that moment getting the offer letter.

Richardson, 26, chose to call up the director she auditioned with and advocate for herself. Though the part remained assigned to someone else, she memorized both sets of lines. Ultimately, the other actress wasn’t able to fulfill the demands, and Richardson was ready to step in with confidence that she could play the role.

“I think it all starts with you knowing that you deserve to be in that position, that you deserve to be in that role and moving as if you do deserve it,” said Richardson, who has started her own production company since adopting the framework in Steele Flippin’s book and is planning to publish a fiction book in January.

Steele Flippin said that experiences like Richardson’s are what inspired her to do research on the topic and provide women with a roadmap for success, whether their environment has gender bias or not.

“For women, even though we know that bias exists, and we all have it, there are steps we can take to boost our self-efficacy so we can navigate our careers well,” Steele Flippin said. “Self-confidence is your belief in yourself, self-efficacy is your belief that you will be successful if you try something.”

Steele Flippin is a senior vice president and chief communications officer at Acuity Brands, a leading industrial technology company based in Atlanta. Since 2016, she has been a research fellow at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, where she earned her Doctor of Management and researches about career development. Her book came out March 8, International Women’s Day, and was a best-seller on Amazon.

When a woman perceives she has been passed over for a promotion she desired, Steele Flippin said the very first step should be having a conversation with her manager.

“If they perceive they are being treated differently because of their gender, they owe it to themselves to have a conversation with their manager to make sure that that’s real and give their manager an opportunity to fix it, correct it,” she said.

Many studies have shown that women who don’t have these conversations about how to successfully move forward in their careers, will lose out financially in lifetime earnings, Steele Flippin said. “If you’re not proactive in your career, particularly early in your career around having conversations about advancing in your profession and negotiating salaries, you could lose out on anywhere from a million to $1.5 million lifetime lost earnings.”

Employers will also be impacted by the possible outcomes by talented women who may become victims of the new trend of “quiet quitting” when women lose confidence and stop developing their skills and motivation to move forward.

An outcome of a conversation about promotions might be a framework from a manager about seeking further experiences or training to prepare for a bigger role. If a woman goes out and does that but the goal post keeps getting moved back, then it’s time to think about proactively finding opportunities that will give her what she needs and deserves. Other opportunities could arise in a different department, or with another company.

However, it is not the right time to burn bridges — she cautions against knee jerk reactions like quitting on the spot, bad mouthing an employer or posting negatively on social media.

“Sit down and first evaluate your finances. Make sure you have a cushion for yourself so you are able to navigate that change if you decide that you no longer want to work there. Continue to perform well in your current role while you look for another opportunity. Continue to practice high integrity, manage your stress in a productive way so that when you do transition you can do so with lots of energy and excitement,” she said.

Steele Flippin has lived in Baltimore in the Bolton Hill neighborhood, and earned her MBA from Johns Hopkins University. She recently spoke to a group of fellows through the Vivian Thomas Scholars Initiative at Hopkins — an initiative designed to address historic underrepresentation in STEM.

Another aspect of her work is working with organizations about how to combat gender bias.

“There are things that organizations can do to help ensure that the environment they are creating is one that is equitable and they have strategies in place to make sure that bias that we all have as humans is addressed, and they have good practices in place to make sure they have an equitable environment,” she said.

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