International Women’s Day: Break the Bias


March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.

This year’s theme, “Break the Bias,” challenges us all to examine how our thoughts and actions can help form a more gender-equal world.

In this Q&A, we talk with Cornerstone Research Chief Marketing Officer Susan Wittner, who this year celebrates forty years in the workforce and has two adult daughters beginning careers of their own. Wittner reflects on how attitudes toward women in the workforce have evolved, and the importance of confronting internal biases that can be just as powerful as external ones.

For your undergraduate degree, you pursued chemical engineering, a field of study and professional life that was uncommon for women at the time. Why did you choose it, and what was it like to be in a small gender minority?

I wanted to be independent and have a career that would support me and my family. Chemical engineering sounded interesting, and there probably was a little defiance in there as well. At Manhattan College in the Bronx, New York, about 10 percent of my chemical engineering class was women. We were at the top end of our class, so often the men would come to us asking for help and support.

When I joined Union Carbide as a chemical engineer in 1982, they had already hired a small mix of women, and it was a collaborative environment. The only real bias we ran into was at our clients’ facilities. We went to oil refineries, where almost all the workers were men, and they would give me a hard time because I was “the girl.” At first glance, they didn’t want to give me the time of day, but if you were resilient and pushed through, they came around and eventually vouched for you.

Aside from that, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not come up against too much bias in my work life. I accept that I am an exception in that sense. Peers and colleagues over the years have talked about being held down in many different ways that I did not experience myself.

You have two daughters who recently entered the workforce. Where do you see the biggest areas of progress for women?

My daughters have entered the workforce more aware and with the understanding that they need to do salary research and be good advocates for themselves. They also have a range of mentors and role models that weren’t easy to find when I was their age. My grandmother, whom I adored, told me it was a terrible decision to go to college because no one would ever marry me. Very few people would think about giving that kind of advice these days.

Women in the workforce today have the village we didn’t have growing up. Research has found that women’s stress response is marked by a pattern of “tend-and-befriend,” that we find strength in our social networks and relationships. There are tribes out there now with mentors and role models you can turn to.

My daughters and their peers have seen their mothers, their aunts, their neighbors, and women in the public eye with a diversity of careers and interests. I see them exhibit more conscious decision-making with their careers and personal lives. There are so many nontraditional paths to take that allow you to do more things. And those choosing traditional paths now can make it an active choice.

More companies are actively fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion, so explicit bias in the workplace is more likely to be discouraged if not outright condemned. In what ways does unconscious gender bias still persist?

In more male-dominated fields, the bias can be that women aren’t as smart, that things need to be explained to us. Women essentially had been forced to establish our credentials, while men’s were just assumed. When this used to happen to me, I would work to establish my credentials quickly, then move on.

Some amount of gender bias is in our control not only for men but women as well. One thing I find interesting is how many young women don’t have the confidence you think they would have after all these years of people talking about equality. I still see a need in them to have someone pump up their inner self, and I’d like to see them be more comfortable standing up for themselves.

I heard a speaker on negotiating who said part of the reason women are paid less than men in some places is they don’t ask for more while interviewing or at review time. Women need to be cognizant of nonconfrontational accepting, of assuming that someone is looking out for them. Men and women alike need to advocate for themselves.

How do gender roles outside of work affect the unconscious bias people bring to their jobs?

We hear from a lot of women about how the pressures of home responsibilities affect their work life, more so than ever during the recent pandemic years. What I found with myself—and I see this with a number of women as well—is we’ve been told you can have it all, but you really can’t.

 Women often don’t realize the extent to which they’ve internalized assumptions based on the roles they take on, especially once children enter the picture. We pick up biases from media, from history, and from our families about things you think you “have” to do: parent actively and cook every night and have a clean house and socialize and take care of the whole domestic sphere—all while working on your career at a high level.

 Women often think you have to do all of these things, until one day you realize you just can’t. Accepting that you can’t do everything is not a failure—it’s how you learn to focus on what’s really important. You have to search your own self and ask if you are targeting something that is really possible.

How do people shift from recognizing bias to breaking it?

Awareness is the important first step, then we have to make it a point to act on that awareness. The International Women’s Day site has a number of selfie cards that I find really interesting. They’re not grand asks, but they can serve as subtle yet powerful prompts toward insight or action. Some of my favorites are:

  • “I will maintain a gender-equal mindset.”
  • “I will call out gendered actions or assumptions.”
  • “I will forge positive visibility of women.”
  • “I will celebrate women’s achievements.”

Organizationally and structurally, there are a number of ways we can help. I feel mentoring is important, and I feel hiring practices that address inequities is valuable. Developing a good corporate culture is where it all begins. Does your culture reject bias? Does your culture make it acceptable to call out bias when you see it? I’ve been very fortunate that Cornerstone Research has always provided an environment that challenges bias of all kinds.

You recently celebrated your ten-year anniversary at Cornerstone Research. How has the firm built a culture that encourages equality?

Two of our firm’s three cofounders—Cindy Zollinger and Christine Nelson—were each raising families when they started the company. For many years there was not any target to bring in more women—it just happened. Both women and men have found this to be a nurturing and appealing place to grow families alongside our careers.

Cornerstone Research recognizes that everyone’s idea of leadership is different. We have an openness and interest in people and their whole selves outside of work. We find and cultivate high-caliber talent and look at the long run to keep those people here.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Cornerstone Research.