By Dr. Nairouz Bader and Srini Pillay, M.D.

Being a woman in business can be a significant challenge. Extensive research shows that social biases exist against women  getting a loan, getting paid, being a CEO, and a number of other benchmarks of progress and status in business. While there is a tremendous effort to seek gender equity and parity in business, most approaches emphasize identifying unconscious biases, seeking inclusion, or adopting an activist stance to advance the cause of women. While these all have distinct advantages, we believe that the issue of addressing gender bias must be more nuanced than this.

In this blog, we will address the psychological disadvantages of activism and an alternative approach to gender bias in the workplace. In so doing, we are not blatantly eschewing activism and inclusion. Instead, we are proposing that women take a more nuanced approach to advancing their own agency and empowerment by considering the dilemmas in their actions.

The other side of activism

Compromises individuality: Psychologically speaking, an activist identity is a collective one. It declares that one is part of an “ingroup”. On the surface, both of these ideas seem fine, except that it may obscure individual strengths and become self-defining.

Challenges true inclusion: Also, activism sets up a polarized (us-them) framework that may slow down inclusion if it remains static. It may not suit some women to be seen as “women” in such an overt way that the recognition persistently excludes them. While the “us-them” mentality allows for confrontation and negotiation, it makes genuine connection and love more difficult. Also,

Extreme reactions and masochism: Research indicates that a feeling of “oneness” with a group makes people react more extremely. As a result, they engage in risk, self-sacrificing, and potentially life-threatening behavior. Self-representation as martyrdom is non-ideal in many instances.  Rather than being courageous, it becomes unconscious self-sabotage.

Destructive anger: There are many prosocial forms of anger that are constructive. For instance, addressing injustices with anger may be an effective and authentic form of communicating. However, when people are angry, they are more likely to be perceived as unfriendly and incompetent. On many instances, anger is an ineffective instrument for persuasion. At a physiological level, destructive anger is associated with a greater risk of coronary heart disease too.

An alternative to activism

In order to manage the potential dangers of activism, we suggest that women incorporate the following ideas in their thinking.

The individual within the collective: When women are expressing their own views about injustice, it may help the listener to see the “group injustice” independent of the woman. For instance, it’s not fair for anyone of any gender doing the same work as anyone else to be paid less. Even if it were a man who was being paid less than the other men, it would not be fair. So, the issue that can be stressed is that the playing field should be levelled, rather than being trapped within a collective identity.

Also, it is relevant to include personal experience in a discussion. This is more likely to reach a listener. And shared collectives with a person (e.g. landscape identification) can be helpful to incorporate in the conversation too.

Form an “us-group”: Rather than asking the ingroup to include you as the “outgroup”, ask ,”What would it take for us to work together?” Sticking to that agenda sets up a proactive contemplation: What do I need to do to get promoted? What do I need to do to get paid more? Are these the same standards applied to everyone? Forming an in-group/out-group dialogue will just lead to more rejection pain.

Moderate and diversify your identifications: Look out for self-sabotage or self-destructive behaviors. Often, activism is traumatic to the activist, and this trauma may make it difficult to attend to one’s self. Caring about a purpose or mission starts with caring about yourself.

Keep anger constructive or seek other emotions: Rather than imposing an emotion on someone, ask them, “What does it make sense to feel if you were in my position?” Moral anger can be helpful if it not threatening. Otherwise, the other person will be in fight or flight mode.

About the Authors:


Dr. Nairouz Bader, the CEO and founder of Envision Partnership is a global career powerhouse with +20 years of the market and business experience supporting management teams in corporations around the world through her leadership and board advisory consultation services. She plays a major role in women empowerment projects, coaching female leadership in META region. Among several initiatives, Dr. Nairouz is part of #Accelerate Her mentorship program, dedicated to develop female talents in #Fintech. Her achievements were featured on an array of notable media gates and publications as Arabiya, CNBC, Forbes, People Management and Horasis.


Srini Pillay, M.D.

Dr. Srini Pillay is a former Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program at Harvard Medical School’s Mclean Hospital. He is also a former brain-imaging researcher at Harvard (17 years), a certified master executive coach and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group®, voted one of the top 20 movers and shakers in leadership development in the world by Training Industry. Dr. Pillay has been a pioneer in the field of transformational neurocoaching®, which provides business leaders with a deep psychological understanding relevant to their personal and professional lives with practical tips, tools and techniques to enhance leadership development using mindset strategies to decrease stress and anxiety, enhance creativity and agility, facilitate change, and optimize mindsets at times of disruption and transformation.

He is on the by-invitation-only national US think tank in psychiatry that focuses on “Disasters and the World” and is also a member of the Transformational Leadership Council. In addition, he is a member of the Consortium for Advanced Adult Leadership development at McKinsey & Co. He is on the board of FRED Leadership, invested in ethical leadership and currently also serves as Chief Medical Officer of Reulay, a virtual reality company.