The gender tax: How much are you willing to pay?

Headshot of Sonja Kristiansen
Sonja Kristiansen, VP of global platform partnerships, TripleLift

Being a woman in the business world levies a mental tax that can ultimately impact productivity and performance.

Gender bias impacts everything we do in the workplace — and I don’t see that changing. 

I’ve worked in three industries during my 15-year career that are highly “gendered” — professional sports, beauty and technology. Regardless of industry, it’s confounding when I hear women in leadership say that gender bias has never been a factor in their career trajectory. 

Being a woman in the business world levies a mental tax that can ultimately impact productivity and performance. 

To be frank, there is no immediate fix for this. The first step is to become aware of the energy and resource attrition it takes to manage gender politics.

How much tax are you willing to pay? 

In workplace interactions, women are forced to make trade-offs in the double bind known as the “likeability paradox.”

For men, likeability and respect are positively correlated, while for women, it’s a binary choice. The data shows that professional women can be liked or respected, but rarely both. This forces us to constantly micro-calculate which persona fits the bill for a particular context. Which would you choose for your one-on-one with your manager? What about sessions with your direct reports? 

Each ounce of energy channeled toward navigating gender politics in a male-dominated world is an ounce that’s unavailable as fuel to drive initiatives forward, lead cross-functional task forces and other career-propelling drivers. For intersectional identities, as well as women in the BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and caregiver communities, the mental tax rate is even higher. 

Knowing what you don’t know

Each one of us has a lens — our lived experience shapes the way we see and interact with the world. For even the most empathetic men, it’s impossible for that lens to encompass what it’s like to be a woman in the business world. 

In the same vein, I’m not a parent. I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent. I know it’s challenging in a lot of ways, particularly as many parents are working from home, potentially without reliable childcare. But those are not things that inherently cross my mind — it’s not in my frame of reference. People on my team are parents, and when I do or say something that doesn’t consider their frame of reference, they tell me. I’m grateful for that, because widening my empathy aperture. Knowing what we don’t know is a powerful antidote to our deficiencies. Men, acknowledge that you don’t understand the experience of being a woman in the workplace and ask women on your team to call out your moments of unawareness. Normalize regular gut-checks and course corrections. Even go so far as to show public gratitude for them. Recognize that every woman you work with is devoting energy to managing gender politics (consciously or subconsciously), and acknowledge that there is an opportunity cost for where else that energy could be going. Women, make hiring bias work for you to level the playing field. Leverage the flywheel effect to your advantage: hire more women, who will in turn hire more women, which will in turn increase the collective awareness of gender factors in the workplace. 

Metrics for equity

While awareness is a prerequisite for addressing gender bias and inequity, it’s not enough. 

I lead a revenue team. If there is a gap between our goal and our actual performance, that gap is quantified and a path to achievement is built using key metrics to measure progress toward the goal. Excuses are not welcomed. The same should be said for hiring metrics. The only way to impose accountability for closing that gap is through hard metrics — for instance, x% of all hires must be women (with built-in variability for current team compositions). This will undoubtedly meet resistance from the anti-hiring quota crowd, but it’s the only way to introduce genuine accountability. Why do we approach revenue gaps so differently than gender gaps? Why do we invest such rigor and resource in product roadmap planning, but treat closing the gender gap like a pipe dream? We have to introduce the same level of accountability in hiring metrics. 

Just like with revenue and roadmapping, we’ll miss the mark sometimes — and be forced to improve the plan for next quarter. 

Sonja Kristiansen is VP of global platform partnerships at TripleLift.


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