How can you succeed when the bias against you is so great?

Gender bias graphic

British history buffs will know that it is 490 years ago today that Henry VIII severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church, setting up the Church of England. The sole reason for doing this was so that he could rid himself of his wife, Katherine of Aragon. The Pope would not grant Henry an annulment of the marriage, so Henry dispensed with the Pope instead. Besides, the Pope might not have been altogether happy with the extra-marital affairs that Henry was taking part in, eventually marrying Anne Boleyn. Ultimately, it’s a tale of the power of a man over women.

It’s interesting that this anniversary comes hot on the heels of International Women’s Day, celebrated around the world yesterday. As I listened to the business news on the radio at the start of the day, two stories caught my attention. One was that Katie Bickerstaffe, the CEO of Marks and Spencer, was stepping down to be replaced by a man. It seemed odd to announce this impending move on International Women’s Day. The other story which made me think was the revelation that a year ago 28% of companies had women leading them. Now it is just 19%. Far from getting equality, things are moving backwards at pace.

It is not going well for women. Just a few weeks ago, research was published showing the bias in movie audiences. The comprehensive study showed that film goers rate movies with a male lead as better than those with a female lead. Perhaps that could explain why that in the past year the number of women getting lead roles in Hollywood has fallen.

In South Africa, women are at the forefront of building businesses, leading childcare, and providing school education. However, they struggle to get more formal education themselves, so heavily biased is the university system against them.

The bias against women is endemic in societies around the world. Even when we might think we are doing well to provide equity, along comes another statistic to prove us wrong. Yesterday I was at an inspiring conference for International Women’s Day where a stark and shocking statistic was revealed. If we continue in our attempts to provide gender equality at the same pace as we are currently taking, it will be another 186 years before it happens. We should be concerned if it was 186 months. But years? That’s just appalling.

People rarely realise how biased they are being. We are socialised to be biased. For example, the other day I was in a meeting where one speaker wanted to make an analogy to explain that people often put off relatively minor tasks. When the individual started his sentence, he was making direct eye contact with me. But when he got to his analogy, he turned his attention to the woman sitting next to me and said, “It’s a bit like not doing the washing or the ironing”.

Why had his brain decided to talk about this and immediately turn his attention to a woman? Because he is socialised to believe that washing and ironing is “women’s work”. He was not deliberately being sexist, I am sure. I merely give this as an example of how we unconsciously behave showing bias against women.

The writer and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart believes that the issue relates to the lack of authority given to women. She explains this in her TED Talk, “Why are women still taken less seriously than men?” Men are socially ascribed more authority than women, which lies at the root of the bias.

This bias even leads to death. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology has documented the “Missing Girls in Historical Europe”. The research shows that the bias against females means they are not nurtured as well as their male counterparts. This leads to excess child mortality in females.

Hopefully, the lack of authority given to women in your office, or the bias against them in the workplace, is not having such a significant impact. But it will be having a huge effect on women and your business. Women tend to last longer in leadership roles than men and preside over teams with much less conflict. This leads to greater productivity and often higher profits. Even if you look at this from a purely business point of view, you have to wonder why so many male-dominated boards have not seen the light and realised that by empowering women, their companies will be better.

One issue here could be imposter syndrome in women – it is known that women tend not to ask for pay rises as they believe they are not worthy of such an increase. Men, on the other hand, ask for extra pay even when they know they do not deserve it.

Another factor is not taking enough action to improve the situation. Men clearly have a role to play, but women themselves can act to remove the bias against them. The day before International Women’s Day, an article was published in Harvard Business Review which suggests a way forward.

The article acknowledges several biases against employees. Often, bosses have a “favourite” for promotion because they do not know enough about the other potential candidates. This means you can start to succeed in defeating gender bias by being more visible. More networking is essential. So too, says Harvard, is making sure you shout about your achievements. Men often remind everyone of their successes. However, women tend not to go on for so much self-promotion.

We were reminded of this issue once again on International Women’s Day when the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that she would be quitting as a Member of Parliament after 27 years. She had plodded away all those years dutifully representing her constituents and supporting their causes. When she became Prime Minister, she took over at a difficult time and needed to organise Brexit. She lost that battle to a man who is a total self-promoter, the “noise” that was Boris Johnson. Mrs May was quiet and bound by duty. You have to wonder if she had shouted about her achievements, whether the course of history would have been different.

There is huge social bias against women. But they can succeed against this. Men need to pipe down and women need to pipe up. If only Henry VIII had piped down and Katherine of Aragon had piped up, then at least Ann Boleyn would have kept her head.

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