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Are you gender-biased?
I am part of an amazing, dynamic all-women founders/entrepreneurs group. Discussions there range from tech topics that go over my head to GST and Tax laws to valuations and what not. One chat that saw animated participation was on gender bias. I was so struck by the conversation, everyone had many stories to share.
If your behaviours are based on certain notions about gender, there is gender bias. It is not just about foeticide or something that is life and death. Think of the more subtle behaviours.
Is your gift to a newborn influenced by gender? Maybe choose blue for a boy, pink for a girl? Would you buy a doll for your little boy? Or would he only get ‘manly’ toys? Can your teenage boy learn embroidery or can your girl take up kabaddi? Can your son take cookery as an optional subject or is that only for girls? Do you limit yourself based on beliefs about your gender? Or do you judge others based on theirs?
Many times, it could be an unconscious bias that we may not even be aware of. It could come about based on our culture, our environment and our upbringing. Sometimes the stereotyping can happen based on some personal experience. I somehow never took to driving and am guilty of once saying woman don’t make for good drivers although that is not true at all. Some of the best drivers I know are women and I am sure statistics will bear this out. I am ashamed to admit that once I felt a millisecond pang of anxiety when I saw a woman pilot enter the cockpit. I consider myself open-minded and fair, even a maverick in some respects. And yet, I have to watch out for these thoughts and behaviours within myself.
Gender bias usually refers to the prejudice against women solely on the basis of their sex. There may be no malice involved but they play out in different ways - some amusing, some not so funny. When I am out in a restaurant with my husband and he isn’t having a drink and yet, he gets the drinks menu and I get the dinner menu, we laugh and swap. When someone I am speaking with on investments either wants to speak to the man of the house or calls me ‘sir’ repeatedly, it can be annoying. And it is downright ridiculous when women get passed over for jobs or promotions, on the basis of their gender. I recall a survey where when the name and gender were blanked out, on the basis of the resume alone, 40% more women would have got the job.
A recent A-PAC study by LinkedIn across 10,000 respondents in many countries showed that Indian working women battle the strongest gender bias. I have coached teams that have had no women at all. I have coached in an organisation where just 2 of the 18 SBU heads are women. I was curious and was told that some team leaders just preferred to hire men. One study found that both men and women prefer male job candidates. So much so that, in general, a man is 1.5x more likely to be hired than a woman. So many beliefs - that a man will be better for some roles, that a woman who is a mother will not contribute as much, that a man makes for a better leader. I could go on.
Some of these biases start early. A boy who dominates his peers is a leader, a girl is bossy. Ambitious is a compliment to a man, not so to a woman. It is not that men are spared, a boy who cries is a sissy, real men don’t cry etc. It is just that the biases against women are so much more, especially in the work setting. It is not just the men, women decision-makers also can be equally biased. I was struck by this representation in an article in Harvard Business Review.
There are so many more such surveys and findings but I don’t think any of us need to look far to recognise gender bias.
When I was in Class 7, I decided I did not enjoy sewing and wanted to take Electric Gadgets as an optional subject. The teacher was horrified, it had always been a male bastion. But I put my foot down and moved. Four other girls followed suit. The sewing teacher hated me after that. The boys in the class sniggered but they stopped when we started doing better than them in building gadgets with wires and batteries. Thereafter, every year, the EG class saw a mix of boys and girls. It was not that I wanted to be a change leader. I just did not want to be limited by gender. If a 12-year-old can bring about change, think of what adults can do if they set their minds to it!
Any change has to begin with each of us. Awareness is the first step. One could take the Implicit Association online bias assessment test, which assesses across many different biases. This is available for free on the Harvard University website. Then comes attitude and behaviour. We need to acknowledge these biases and call it out. Make systemic changes also if it is in our power to do so. At the organisation level, have systems set in such a way that there is no room for bias. Consciously ensure gender diversity. At the very least, let there be a blind screening of job applications, with merit being the guide. As organisational leaders, review appraisal factors to see if any biases have crept in, ensure fairness in leadership development programs, create a culture where there is diversity and fairness.
Very recently, a popular Indian magazine had a cover picture of some Indian woman CEOS with the headline, ‘from chores to crores’. They probably thought it made for a clever copy but anyone I knew with half a brain cringed and reacted strongly, taking to social media. Have you seen headlines like these? ‘Woman scientist wins a Nobel Prize’, while a man winning sees this headline “Prof John Smith, distinguished this and that wins a Nobel Prize for pathbreaking work….’. Completely unacceptable and yet, very commonplace.
What are the biases that you recognise in yourself and in the world around you? What is it that you will do or change to bring about a more equal world?
We have to each take responsibility to create a society where women are respected, acknowledged and given opportunities equal to a man, otherwise celebrating a day for women will just be tokenism.
Author: Revathi Shivakumar is an ICF Certified, PCC Credentialed Coach. She works with individuals and organisations to help them achieve their goals. She is also an undergraduate admissions mentor to high school students and work with students from many countries. To know more about her and her work, visit www.bodhitreecoaching.com and https://revadmissions.com
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author.
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