The Unsaid Bias & How To Break It

The Unsaid Bias & How To Break It

For too long, we have assumed that only women needed to change, when in fact organisations should be focusing on removing the gender bias and the beliefs that people have held so far.


• Call it the sticky floor, that holds women back


• Blame it on the ‘broken rung’ of the ladder that prevents a woman professional’s climb. 


• Call it the hidden ‘glass ceiling’ whose existence people deny, but accept.


• Or, blame it on the glass cliff- the crisis laden roles, doomed for failure that are often, given to women.


The reasons are many, the verdict is one. The numbers are staggeringly uncomplimentary for the women in the workforce. In India, at the national level, only 14% of Members of Parliament are women, with roughly half of them coming from only four states. At the state level, they make up only 9% of the elected candidates of State Legislative Assemblies. The story is no different in the corporate sector. According to the CS Gender 3000 in 2021 report published by Credit Suisse, India ranks 23 out of 56 countries with only 8.5 percent of women occupying senior roles. Even though the statistic has increased from 6.9 percent in 2016, India still occupies the third lowest spot amongst the APAC countries.


What contributes to this inequity in women’s representation in the workforce? It is a combination of many factors. 


• It starts early, it starts in their playtime: In 2014, researchers Sherman and Zurbriggen wrote about how early childhood and adolescence are the peak times for the development of gendered behaviour. In their paper, ‘Boys Can Be Anything: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions’, they investigated perceptions of careers that girls felt they could do in the future as compared to the number of careers they felt boys could do, after playing with a Barbie Doll (gendered toy) or Mrs. Potato Head doll (neutral toy). The study found that girls who played with Barbie indicated that they had fewer future career options than boys, whereas girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported a smaller difference between future possible careers for themselves as compared to boys. It is no surprise then that this impact of early socialisation themes creates selflimiting beliefs in the minds of the young girls, who can never quite break this internal barrier.


• You have to be ‘nice’: There is a certain implicit expectation that a woman’s behaviour has to be of a certain kind. In another interesting study, researchers Bowles, Babcock and Lai found that in an experiment that involved negotiations evaluators penalised female candidates more than male candidates for initiating negotiations. Perceptions of niceness and demandingness explained resistance to female negotiators.


• Wait! You are in queue: In a study done by Pew Research on 1835 executives, the number one reason why there are fewer women at the top was because women were held to higher standards than men and must do more to prove themselves. Women also tend to prepare more, will not apply to roles unless they are 100% sure, and suffer from what Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their book, Womenomics call the ‘Confidence Gap’. 


• It’s too difficult for you: There is a subtle, almost insidious form of sexism called ‘benevolent sexism’ which is positive on the outside, intends to make women feel ‘protected’. However, this type of “protection” may ultimately undermine women’s career advancement. By subtly filtering women into low status, low power positions as compared to their male counterparts (who apparently are not in need of the same kind of protection). This kind of bias leads to women rarely taking on the more visible and central leadership roles.


But all these issues are at the tip of the iceberg; there are many other issues that sit underneath the cold waters. The good news though is that it is ‘warmest’ at the tip of the iceberg, meaning, there are sparks of good news.


Women’s representation in grassroots institutions in India, on the other hand, is relatively better. Reservations for women brought in by the 73rd constitutional amendment saves one-third of leadership positions in village-level governance for women. In a study done by Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo and co-author Raghabendra Chattopadhyay on India’s Gram Panchayats, they found that women pradhans invested more in rural infrastructure that served the needs of their own gender better. For instance, women pradhans were more likely to invest in providing easy access to drinking water, since the collection of drinking water is primarily, if not solely, the responsibility of women. So, if change can happen in rural India, there is hope for the corporate world.


Here are five ways in organisations at one level and women at another, can turn the hope for equality at the workplace into a reality. Spoiler alert: it is not about having more women councils or mentorship programmes for women


• Fix the system, not the women: I was so happy when I found out that there was no place in the girls’ hostel at my daughter’s engineering college. There were 30% more girls who had qualified (yes, admission is based on a competitive exam) than the boys. So clearly, it is not meritocracy at the start that is an issue. It is the subsequent lack of systemic support to women that is the problem 


• What women really want: Women still undertake nearly twice as much housework as men and spend more than twice the amount of time providing childcare (Bianchi, Robinson and Milkie, 2006; Eagly and Carli, 2007). Parenting pressures are most intense among women having the most career potential. Equal support from the spouse, an understanding manager, a flexible work policy is all that women really want. While organisations cannot necessarily ensure support from the spouse, they can definitely help in the other two.


• Care, don’t protect: The truest way to develop potential (irrespective of gender) is by providing developmental opportunities. Research shows that women often do not get these opportunities, because of the bias of the management. “Oh! She has children, she can’t deal with this high pressure” or “Hope you’ve spoken to your spouse because this role involves travel”- are all coming from a mindset that presumes more and clarifies less. This keeps the developmental opportunities away from women and widens the gap


• Don’t quit the quota: Am saying something controversial here! And we do not need to shy away from it. When a particular section of the society has so far been marginalised, you have to make the ‘space at the table’ for them. So, organisations need to be intentional and get women in leadership spaces. If a quota system is what it takes so be it. Mind you, am not suggesting that there is a quota for nonperformance, but you have to give them a chance to perform first.


• Get the men ready: Men need to be allies for women’s growth. Not mentors, not supporters- but active sponsors for women. For too long, we have assumed that only women needed to change, when actually organisations should be focusing on removing the gender bias and the beliefs that people have held so far 


And that is a great place to me end and for us to start. Let us break the bias in our organisations. In our heads. Let us give hope a chance!

Nishath Usmani is responsible for leadership development of senior leaders at KPMG. She comes with an experience of more than 18 years in leadership development, learning strategy, talent management, facilitation, coaching & learning communications. She has worked previously worked in Capgemini’s Corporate University and Deloitte Consulting. Nishath is presently pursuing Ph.D. in management (HR).


0/3000 Free Article Left >Subscribe