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#BreakTheBias | My anatomy should not be a barometer for my ability

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Gender Bias and Stereotypes in the Workplace

The F Word

I didn’t always identify as a feminist. I’d call myself things like humanist. Or womanist. Feminism seemed like an exclusive man-hating club that I just didn’t belong to. The feminist spaces I’d find myself in made me feel excluded and like my contributions or my story didn’t matter. Or that I was wrong for thinking that at some point and in some instances, men need to be a part of the conversation. How do we expect to win the fight for women’s empowerment without 50% of the population? I couldn’t relate.

Eventually I came to accept that in its simplest form, feminism is about advocating for women’s rights based on equality for all, while demolishing patriarchy. Not hating men or taking anything away from them. That would be misandry. It is saying that if men can, why can’t we and using that mindset to demand for change. This I could wholeheartedly identify with and the reality is that though you may not identify as a feminist, any decent individual will agree with the premise.

The E Words

So, what do we mean when we talk about equality and how will we know when we have it? And is it equality that we really want? Or is it equity? Some food for thought there but I do believe that one of the indicators will be when universally the office structure is flexible enough to serve women in the same way that it serves men. 

I’d like to think that my job now is the dream job of any creative feminist, who also happens to be a disruptive digital butterfly. As the Architect of Stories at The Haven I get to show up, put myself out there, raise my hands and be unapologetically disruptive in the workplace. Truly a feminist’s dream! In my mind, every copy I type is a rebellion against machismo. Every design, a revolutionary act against the patriarchy. Every conversation, an articulation of the need for women’s agency. Because my job is to challenge the status quo by using storytelling through digital mediums, like The Haven’s website for example, and to use those mediums as a catalyst to inspire change.

Beyond what I do, I can say without a doubt that I have never worked in a better environment. I remember when I had my interview, a friend who knows me all too well advised that I ask about the office culture. I didn’t feel the need to, but he advised this because he knew that I would enjoy work and be an asset in a workplace culture that is consistent with my needs and values.

A workplace without bias

I am lucky enough to work in a space where my anatomy is not used as a barometer for my ability. I don’t feel penalised or taken advantage of because I am a mother. In the past I have had bosses assume that I can’t afford to leave and pursue the job I deserve because it won’t offer me the flexibility I require, being a single mother of 1. As a result, my request for a salary review fell on deaf ears because they assumed that I had little choice and I would stay regardless. Not only does The Haven encourage flexibility, but wellbeing is also insisted upon. I also do not believe that my earning potential has been capped by me being a woman. I feel like my voice matters and on the one rare occasion that I experienced conscious bias – outside of the workplace but at a work-related event – I felt supported and I was given the option to escalate the incident.

Not everyone is that lucky. The truth is that privileged men, custodians and the sole beneficiaries of patriarchy, designed the structure of the traditional workplace based on their needs. Why else did work start when most shops hadn’t even opened their doors yet, and closed by the time work finished? It was because their privilege at the time included wives who stayed at home to raise children and pick up their dry cleaning. Though we’ve come a long way since the 1960s when women began to participate in the workforce, the office structure has never been revisited holistically and has continued into modern day. This has made it consistently difficult for women to be successful, while men continue to elevate themselves into positions of power. So how do we recreate the workplace with women in the boardroom?

For a start by reflecting on our own internalised biases and calling out sexism and gender stereotypes not just in the workplace but at home, in society and beyond. For example, phrases like man up or don’t be such a girl should not be part of your dialogue, especially when dealing with children. It is very important that we are consciously giving the right messages to girls and boys so that girls are not socialised to reduce themselves and boys do not think of themselves as better than.

When you talk about gender bias in the workplace most people automatically think about the wage gap. But if we look beyond the fight for parity, women remain underrepresented in leadership, receive less access to senior leaders and are left out of the fastest-growing sectors, such as tech, citing culture and biological differences as the primary reason. So, what have we been doing to address this and why haven’t we progressed much further in this fight?  

It is because our approach does not address the systemic problem of unconscious bias. Our unconscious bias starts at home when we are little by the stories we hear and what we see normalised and tolerated as acceptable behaviours all around us. We all inherently have bias. My bias will dictate whether I like you and what I think you are capable of. With that in mind it is important that workspaces are designed to be anti-bias.

Check your bias

I’d like to dissect one example as I examine ways in which we can try to do this:

Imagine you are the CEO of a multinational tech firm with a regional office here in Birmingham. You also have a branch in good old Silicon Valley…. You get to your desk on a Monday morning to find out that there has been a crisis there. As CEO, you must make an executive decision to send a member of your team to resolve the issue within 3 days. There are two members of the team; Sarah and John to choose from, both equally competent. Coincidentally, they both have a spouse and multiple children and have both recently lost a parent. Who would you send and why?

A few business leaders were asked this same question. A good number said they would consult with the team members involved first, few said they would send Sarah – all women who had picked up on the expected bias. In all seriousness and without even battling an eyelid, far too many said they would send John because… wait for it… he has a wife who will look after the children and he will be emotionally stronger than Sarah following the death of her mother.

What if John was not feeling strong enough to be away from his support system? And would you blame Sarah for not putting herself forward for future travel opportunities if she already knows she won’t be selected? What about the impact this decision could have on Sarah’s confidence and how that can affect her work? – Maybe a decrease in the quality of her performance which would then make her even less visible for important projects. And just like that, yet another woman is silenced.

What are the unconscious beliefs that led to these results?

  • Women are less emotionally stable than men and let their personal lives and emotions impact their professional relationships and decision-making ability.
  • Women with children do not want to travel or be away from their children.
  • Women with children must plan for childcare well in advance and cannot travel at short notice.
  • The decision to send the man instead is in the woman’s best interest.
  • Men are willing to travel at short notice as they do not have the same commitments as women.
  • Men with spouses or long-term partners are able to give more commitment to their job as their partners will look after their personal commitments.

How can we avoid these unconscious biases affecting our behaviour in general which leads to poor decision-making in the workplace? You might want to check out my A to Z here.

In addition, you can try the following:

  • Inclusive meeting practices –  Not every woman will have the confidence to rein a male colleague in the way Kamala Harris did with Mike Pence during the debates. Facilitators should set clear rules at the start of the meeting and stick to the agenda. Watch closely for dominators and interrupters. If someone tries to control the dialogue, interject and redirect the conversation back to the broader group. If someone is interrupted, step in quickly. You might say, “Wait a minute, I want to hear more of what Sarah has to say,” or “Hold on. I am intrigued with what John was telling us. John, can you finish your thought?”
  • A recent Gender Equality Monitor report that tracks the UK’s progress on gender equality found that women occupy 76% of all administrative and secretarial jobs in the UK. One way to shift workplaces away from gender bias is to create the framework to support more women to take on more senior roles through inclusive policies and procedures. For example businesses and organisations that previously frowned on mothers working from home when they need to can now rethink this policy after COVID-19.
  • The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination. Clear policies on discrimination will help define how your business or organisation plans to protect – if you need help with your workplace policies as they relate to stalking and harassment and domestic abuse, The Haven can help.
TED Talk: How to design gender bias out of your workplace

So now that’s out of the way, riddle me these:

A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.” How is this possible?

40-75% of people can’t solve this riddle because they’re unable to imagine the surgeon is a woman. The surgeon is the boy’s mother.

A forty-something year old celebrity actress visits her holiday home on a tropical island. A hurricane strikes, destroying the oceanfront property. The actress manages to escape and save Pebbles, her teacup Chihuahua. Afterwards, she says she feels blessed because all she needs in life is to be with precious Pebbles. No one who reads the news story the following day believes her. How is this possible?

100% of people who follow celebrity news cannot imagine a childless forty-something actress feeling blessed or fulfilled.

A woman graduates at the top of her university class and has an enormously successful career as a lawyer and public servant. With her extensive experience, formidable knowledge and composed temperament, she runs for a powerful government position. Yet the election is won by a two-bit blowhard salesman who has limited understanding of the world and the impulse control of an untrained teacup Chihuahua. He and his male cabinet proceed to destroy everything in their path with a unique combination of racism, arrogance, and stupidity. How is this possible?

In a poll, 46% of voters admitted that He-who-shall-not-be-named-here won their vote when he defended the size of his manhood! Thank goodness his tenure in office is over!

Featured image context: A mother with her baby on her back, tending to the farm. Women are the heartbeat of Africa. If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire!

UPDATE: This post was adapted into a talk delivered at The Haven Wolverhampton’s first-ever Female Empowerment Convention in February as seen below:

blue and brown welcome to the beach signage

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