March 8 is globally celebrated as International Women’s Day (IWD). This year, the theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is #BreakTheBias, putting the focus on dismantling stereotypes and fighting discrimination against women. Whether unconscious or not, gender bias is something that many women face on a regular basis. It’s no longer good enough just to recognise bias – it’s something we all need to actively challenge when we see it happening
Bias can happen when you unconsciously associate certain stereotypes with certain people. But what does unconscious bias mean?
The definition of unconscious bias is a belief you hold that you are not consciously aware of. Every single one of us holds some form of bias, and this can often be an unconscious form of bias. This is because your conscious mind and your unconscious mind can sometimes have two opposing ideals, despite what you may think about your own beliefs.
This might sound like a complete contradiction, but let’s break it down. An example of unconscious bias could be someone who believes they treat both genders equally, but who actually holds unconscious biases about ‘traditional’ gender roles – that is, the man acts as the breadwinner for the family while the woman performs the role of homemaker. This could be reflected as unconscious gender bias, where they treat their male and female colleagues differently without even realising it, allowing it to affect their decision making.
Having an unconscious gender bias doesn’t automatically make you a prejudiced person. Bias is actually a natural human trait and, more often than not, any unconscious bias we hold has probably been absorbed from our surrounding environment. Studies show that children are exposed to gender bias at a very young age. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that some of us form unconscious gender bias without fully realising it, even if our conscious mind believes we treat everyone equally.
But that’s why unconscious bias can be so dangerous – because we’re not always aware of how deep our own biases run. However, conscious or not, bias is something that contributes greatly to gender inequality and it needs to be recognised and called out.
The good news is that unconscious biases can be unlearned. Here are a few ways you can begin to recognise and unlearn your own biases:
For International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022, TPG Telecom invited its employees from across Australia and the Philippines to experience a live presentation by Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, the Women in STEM Ambassador and an astrophysicist with more than two decades of experience under her belt. She spoke about the challenges that women and young girls face in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), and how we can work to overcome gender bias to encourage a higher representation of women in STEM.
The issues faced by girls and women in STEM are many and varied. Some of the obstacles that both girls and women face in STEM are outlined in the Women in STEM Decadal plan:
However, in broad strokes, the ways we can begin to tackle these issues include:
One of the ways Professor Harvey-Smith and her office sought to overcome some of these obstacles was through a campaign called ‘Future You’, which aims to help raise awareness around STEM and break down stereotypes.
Another way that Professor Harvey-Smith and her team are working to fight unconscious gender bias is by having the names of applicants removed from grant requests. Again, whether we are aware of it or not, even a person’s name can bring up unconscious biases. So in anonymising applicants, the playing field is much more level for everyone.
The incredible work that Professor HarveySmith does as the Women in STEM Ambassador means that, one day, there will no longer be a need for an ambassador.
Kim Hardwick, the Enterprise Risk Manager at TPG Telecom, shared a recent experience where she was confronted with very stark examples of gender bias.
“A few years ago, we subscribed to a very popular and reputable children’s learning program. One element of the educational app is a dress-up game. My eldest (who was 5 at the time) was playing one day and remarked that the girl avatar in the dress-up game couldn’t get the fireman outfit on.
“I took a closer look and saw that there were two gendered avatars and a number of outfits that each of them could be dressed in. The girl avatar had the options of fairy-wings, a tutu, crown and wand, yet the boy avatar had the options of a police officer, fireman, construction worker and superhero.
“I was so incensed and frustrated with this blatant gender stereotyping that I felt compelled to raise it with the program developer. I drafted an email calling out the problem and recommending that all of the outfits be made available to all of the avatars. Within a few months the dress-up game had been changed, and all costumes are available for both avatars now which is a good start – though we as a society still have a long way to go to be properly inclusive.”
Kim chose to take action because she believes that it’s important for all children – her three young daughters included – to have the same access to opportunities and experiences. She puts it like this:
“For children, it is about ensuring their aspirations and dreams are not limited by outdated ideas of what girls and boys should think, do, wear, or how they should behave. It is so important to have diversity across all ages, activities, roles and experiences; in academia, business, sport, politics and media
“Gendered stereotyping and biases limit access to different thoughts, ideas, problem-solving, perspectives, empathy and leadership.”
At home, Kim encourages her family to talk “about gender, race, culture, stereotypes, assumptions and biases with an open, inclusive dialogue. We also do really practical things like share all of the responsibilities, tasks and chores around the house.
“While it certainly isn’t a child’s responsibility to notice gender biases, I do think it is a great skill for them to learn in an effort to be more empathetic to others and to ensure everyone has access to the same opportunities and experiences.”
Jackie Archer is the Transformation Change Analyst at TPG Telecom. Jackie has been with Vodafone since 2016 and is part of the STEMpower group, which is an internal group advocating for increased female representation in STEM. Over the years, she has had opportunities to become involved in various company initiatives around supporting women in technology.
Jackie outlined a number of ways the company is challenging conscious and unconscious gender bias, working towards inclusivity and empowering women in STEM:
At Vodafone, we recognise the value that women have as integral members of the technology industry. That’s why we believe in driving sustainable change that supports women throughout our organisation. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women, but to also recognise the ways that we can challenge gender bias, encourage inclusivity and continue to fight for gender equality.