Challenging Gender Bias

14 September 2017

Unconscious Bias and Diversity & Inclusion. These were terms I had never heard before I joined Steps three years ago. Now I have learnt a huge amount about them and the impact they can have on the workplace. Steps has a wealth of experience in designing and delivering programmes looking at these subjects and more and more companies know that for high performing, 21st century businesses, diversity and inclusion must be integral.

We know our approach works as it allows individuals to develop their awareness and skills to champion diversity and to understand what inclusion means to them. Our programmes focus on the key characteristics of workplace diversity including race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, ability and sexual orientation. The Equality Act 2010 ensures it is against the law to discriminate against individuals on the basis of age, sex disability and other protected characteristics. I have witnessed the shift in attitude within a room whilst a programme is being delivered. I have seen the difference our sessions make. But I have also seen men roll their eyes when we start to discuss bias towards women in the workplace. I heard one man mutter, ‘Oh for crying out loud, are we still discussing this?!!’ The fact is yes, we are still discussing this and we must continue to discuss it until there is clear evidence that men and women are being treated equally in the workplace and are given equal opportunities.

We like to think that things have progressed a lot since the last century but in truth, we still have a very long way to go. At a previous workplace, when a meeting took place it was always assumed that I would take the notes because I was a woman and ‘so much better at that sort of thing than the men’! When an exchange like this is included within one of our scenarios during a live programme there is often laughter in the room, but it is a knowing laugh with many levels of understanding.

It is not just anecdotal evidence that shows how far we have to go: the facts and figures speak for themselves. According to City am, despite a series of calls and reviews to help boost the number of women in business and the boardroom, the proportion of senior business roles held by women in the UK has fallen to 19 per cent. In fact there were far more men called John leading the UK’s biggest companies than women, according to a Guardian name check of the FTSE 100 in 2015. It’s not just the roles within companies that highlight the inequality between the sexes. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the UK’s gender wage gap narrowed to a record low this year but women still earn 9.4 per cent less than men, with big discrepancies still existing in some parts of the country. With the recent very public revelations at both Google and BBC of the huge disparity in pay between men and women and the fact that it is mainly men listed as their top earners, it is clear there is still a great deal of progress to be made.

A recent leak of a Google male engineer’s manifesto argued that there are more men are in leadership roles than women in tech due to ‘biological’ differences. Although the document was widely condemned these attitudes do exist. But how are they born and why are they so deep set in so many workplaces? In a recent experiment for the BBC’s documentary ‘No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’ Dr Javid Abdelmoneim explored whether the way that we treat boys and girls in childhood is the real reason we haven’t achieved equality between men and women. Working with a class of 7 year olds, it was striking to see the difference in attitudes that the children had already fixed on at such a young age. The findings showed a very polarised opinions of how boys and girls should live their lives and a huge difference between behaviour and psychological traits. At the age of 7, there are no real physical difference between the sexes in terms of strength and physical ability, yet boys were considered to be ‘strong’ and girls ‘weak’. Within the programme Professor Gina Rippon, a leading expert in brain imaging and neuroscience showed there is no such thing as a male or female brain and reiterated the fairly recent finding that the brain is a ‘plastic’ organ which can be shaped and moulded by experiences, particularly during childhood. With this in mind, Dr Javid tried to change the classroom and home environment by challenging the assumptions and biases which have already been informed by the adults around them and getting rid of anything that anything that reinforced the idea that boys and girls are different. It wasn’t easy but it worked and by the end of the experiment there was a real change in the children’s behaviour and attitudes as well as self-confidence and empathy.

So if a group of seven year olds can have their biases challenged and recognise there are more similarities than difference between men and women after just six weeks, I think it’s definitely safe to say that there is hope for us all!

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