Gender Bias in the Workplace – you don’t even know it’s there!
From Christine Baines
Inequality and discrimination, whether based on gender, race, religion or sexuality receives much discussion, training, legal challenges and pages of print, but how much focus is given to the fact that much discrimination is completely unconscious? Treating this issue as more political correctness or blaming others, wastes time and makes us all guilty.
Since birth we have been “programmed” in what it means to be male or female and these unconscious “programmes” shape how we respond. From the moment we are born, the brain is bombarded with the images and perceptions of those around us – our cultural heritage, parents, teachers, peers, and our physical environment. We all (men and women) have a core belief that our decisions, judgements and actions are made from logic and forethought, when in fact they are mostly made on impulse, with little conscious thought. We tend to respond ‘positively’ to people like ourselves, and ‘negatively’ to people who are different, and this is instantaneous and unconscious.
As a woman having spent many years at corporate board level and then working as a consultant in the field of equality and diversity within large organisations, I came to realise that many people (men and women) who participated in discriminatory attitudes and conversation, did so “innocently, without any prior intention. By that I mean that they were completely unaware how their remarks could be interpreted.
Some years ago I went to buy an expensive German sports car, a new model just released. The salesperson I approached, walked away from me, saying over his shoulder “ send me a cheque for £1000 and I’ll put you on the list”. That is an example of gender bias. Women don’t buy expensive German sports cars. I was written off as not worth the time and effort. In fact, that particular car was aimed by the manufacturer, at the female market. In very many ways this unconscious bias is happening in the work place. A senior partner in a law firm had been complimented on a senior female employee’s attraction of a major new client. He said “I wouldn’t give her all the credit for that. Some of the men helped her with it.” Does this mean that no-one would have helped a man in a similar way? No, it indicates gender bias.
In the issue of women’s inequality in the workplace, whether in terms of pay or promotion, or behaviour considered to be sexist, there is a tendency to blame “the other”, ie men. We women rarely consider that we are as responsible. Aim to consciously listen to your own internal conversations and perceptions. Despite any previous diversity training, you’ll be surprised to find out what you really think!
Until more work is done in organisations, to examine and reveal our unconscious gender bias, it is likely that our internal gender stereotypes will continue to affect the outward behaviour of both men AND women. Engaging a coach to raise the awareness of your own unconscious gender bias will substantially improve the equality of the hierarchy of women and men in your organisation. Without such awareness, equality will remain an illusion.