Breaking the Bias (2)

International Women’s Day – March 2022

How do you like your coffee? Black, milky, sweet, strong, frothy, single shot, instant, ground? There are so many ways to drink coffee and you probably have a preference for a particular version. Whatever your choice, when making your coffee at home, or when ordering your coffee to go from your local café, you’re probably fairly consistent in your choice. Of course, you may not even like coffee and have a bias for tea instead…

In its most simple form, a bias refers to the ‘fact of preferring a particular subject or thing’ [Cambridge dictionary] and I guess for most of you, if you think back, you may recall how you got to your coffee or tea bias. It may have involved much experimentation en route to your favourite choice. If you’ve been consuming your favourite beverage for a while now, you probably don’t even think about how this version came to be your favourite anymore. And perhaps you no longer explore other ways to drink your coffee or tea, being very comfortable with the status quo of your current taste.

When it comes to knowing how you like your coffee, a bit of bias is a good thing. It saves you mental effort as you do not have to engage in conscious thoughts about how to make your coffee. The brain’s primary function is to run our body budget and ensure that we have enough energy to survive at all times. This means that wherever possible, the brain seeks to make certain things automatic, requiring very little energy. And this goes for our thoughts and beliefs as well. Our biases are formed, often unconsciously, by our brains in an attempt to simplify and organise the world around us. Science shows us that there may be a hereditary component to our biases as well as an environmental influence. Often the environmental influence occurs when we are very young and hence our biases are often unconscious and thus unquestioned. As the saying goes, ‘if you have a brain, you have a bias’ and whether those biases are conscious or unconscious, they will be impacting our thoughts and behaviour towards others.

When bias results in ‘the action of supporting or opposing a particular person, group or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment[Cambridge dictionary], this becomes a issue and nowhere is this bias clearer than in women’s equality. By virtue of the very fact that we have to have an International Women’s Day, with the context of ‘Breaking the Bias’ demonstrates how serious this bias against women really is. This bias can manifest in many subtle and not so subtle ways – the pay gap between genders, the narrowing funnel of women in leadership roles, judging women on the way they look, treating women employees differently – all of which are hugely damaging and challenging for women.

During a recent Teamery webinar, the Teamery co-founders shared their stories about how bias has impacted them during the course of their careers. The stories ranged from being paid substantially less than a lesser qualified male peer, to having their career track chosen for them, based on what the male superiors thought would be best. Stories like these abound, sadly, and despite the ongoing call for gender equality and women’s rights, these stories are much the same today as they were ten years ago. So what is really going on? Why aren’t women making more inroads towards equality and what can be done?

Let’s start by examining what’s really going on and why, despite best efforts by a number of organisations, the gender gap is not closing. Robin J Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School and the faculty chair of the HBS Gender Initiative, and Irene Padavic, distinguished professor of Sociology at Florida State University, recently published an article titled, ‘What’s Really Holding Women Back?’, in the Harvard Business Review of March/April 2020. They found, in their research at a leading American consulting company, that the narrative of ‘having a high-power job was a challenge for women whose devotion to family commitments make it impossible for them to put in the required long hours necessary to advance their careers’ was the reason given for the lack of women in partnership positions. In fact, Ely and Padavic found that this narrative is so pervasive across both genders within the organisation and has never been thoroughly interrogated, despite the fact that there were women without family commitments who were not in partnership roles either. Their research identified the fact that in its attempt to create a conducive working space for women, the organisation was actually derailing them by offering them ‘accommodations’ – part-time work, more internally focused roles, etc. By taking advantage of these accommodations, women landed up moving away from leadership roles and the predominance of men in partnership roles continued. At the heart of their findings, Ely and Padavic discovered that the culture of most organisations continues to reinforce the narrative of the importance of work/life balance for women, to the detriment of both women and men. Interestingly, the organisation rejected the researchers’ findings and preferred to stick to their narrative that women are more devoted to family commitments and therefore won’t choose to climb the corporate ladder. What an unconscious and ingrained bias!

The only way to Break the Bias is to surface the bias and face it head on. Nothing can be changed unless we can see it and acknowledge it. The surfacing of the bias is the responsibility of all, not just women. To have successful and complete equality, we need courage, conversations, commitment and above all, action within our organisations – and we need it urgently.  

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