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The amazing tool that women in the White House used to fight gender bias

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama is the first sitting president to call himself a feminist. His administration is the most diverse in history because he’s made an effort to fill the majority of top policy appointments in his executive branch with women and people of color.

But a fascinating anecdote, reported by Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post on Tuesday, reminds us that even self-identified feminists like Obama can still harbor unconscious gender biases:

When President Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women complained of having to elbow their way into important meetings. And when they got in, their voices were sometimes ignored.

So female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.

The “amplification” strategy seems to have paid off: During Obama’s second term, Eilperin notes, women finally gained parity with men in Obama’s inner circle.

For most women in the workplace, this phenomenon is exhaustingly familiar: A woman offers an idea in a meeting, but nobody notices or acknowledges it until a man later says the same thing.

And it’s not in our heads. Decades of research show that women get interrupted more often — by both men and women — and that women are given less credit, or even penalized, for speaking out more.

The solution Obama’s female staffers came up with is genius. It’s a great model for women everywhere who are frustrated with the status quo of manterruption and bropropriation, and other silly new words for all the serious old things women have always dealt with but never named.

It shows that when women band together and support one another, it can be incredibly powerful. (Heck, if bonobos can use female camaraderie to smash the patriarchy, surely we can too.)

But it also shows just how much conscious effort is required to overcome biases against women, especially women in power.

It can be tough for women to band together and gain power, even in progressive workplaces

First, women have to actually recognize that they’re being treated unequally in subtle ways. Then, if they’re lucky enough to have a critical mass of other female colleagues, they have to convince those colleagues there’s a problem that must be addressed.

If these women are lucky enough to work in an open-minded (yet still subtly biased) organizational culture, they might be able to raise their concerns directly and ask their male colleagues to adjust their behavior. But if not, they’ll have to be stealthier, and they may well risk backlash.

Again, even having the right ideology or intentions isn’t enough. Women aren’t immune to gender bias against other women or girls, and even people who are conscientious feminists can fall prey to unconscious bias.

Science teacher Jessica Kirkpatrick has an illuminating anecdote about an experiment she ran on herself: Even when she made a deliberate effort to call on students equally based on their race and gender, and had a colleague observe those efforts, she still gave a disproportionate amount of talking time to white male students.

We also have more sobering examples of the importance of women banding together, and the difficulty of making that happen, when it comes to issues like sexual harassment.

Whether at conservative workplaces like Fox News or progressive ones like FitzGibbon Media, powerful men can get away with serial sexual harassment or assault for years before one woman finally has the courage to speak out and encourage others to follow her. It usually takes a lot to get to that point.

Women have tremendous strength in numbers, but gathering those numbers in the first place takes courage and conscious effort. Maybe one day we won’t need that tool to be treated equally, but that day isn’t today.