From Lori Tyrrell:
Today, my 2 year old son voiced his first comprehension of gender differences based on an observation about clothing. We were putting on his boots and he said, “girls don’t wear boots, only boys”. Considering I wear boots almost exclusively through winter, and see us as role model parents when it comes to demonstrating equality between men and women, I was wildly curious about his comment.
”Why do you think that Baby Saxon?” He replied, because “I am a boy and I wear boots”. Now his answer may seem very elementary, but given my learning in this area, I recognized it as a quite a poignant demonstration of how our unconscious bias forms, and how early in life it starts.
Unconscious bias exists in all of us, cemented deep in our psyche, formed and molded throughout our entire lives by our personal experiences and influences, possibly even before we are aware enough to observe that “only boys wear boots”.
Specific to gender equality, unconscious bias poses a huge blind spot for both the holder and the receiver of the bias, and makes gender inequality in the workplace a much more complex problem. However pronouncing “gender inequality in the workplace is a complex problem” is like saying “grass is green”. I suggest “seeking to understand” is more constructive & helpful to the discussion.
So, do I upset the “forming” process of his developing unconscious bias by wearing boots all through summer? Maybe, but that would probably do more to reinforce my lack of fashion sense!!
The gender gap is now recognized as enough of a societal issue that the Australian Government has implemented laws to regulate and support the increase of women in the workforce, companies are investing in diversity training and development for their staff, activists are stimulating discussion around the topic to raise awareness and educate people, and the discussion is getting louder.
It’s progress, but here is my issue with the direction of this progress – none of it does anything to tackle the underlying unconscious or implicit bias that creates the issue in the first place.
Unconscious bias is such a strong and normal human condition, developed and cemented at such an early age that real change for anyone over the age of about 18 years of age is a genuinely long, hard slog.
I am not suggesting it can’t be done, but unlearning takes an inordinate amount time, focus and genuine personal motivation. Unless we are personally adversely affected by unconscious bias and gender inequality, it is unlikely that most of us will have the motivation to really change much.
Sadly, here is the thing – our unconscious bias IS personally adversely affecting us, but because it’s unconscious, we don’t even realize, despite the massive size & scale of the adverse impact.
In February 2015 the Australian Productivity Commission released some key findings from their Inquiry Report on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning.
From those key findings, we know that 25% of the women NOT in the workforce listed “caring for children” as the main reason they are NOT in the workforce – by contrast, only 2.95% of men stated the same.
When we look into the detail, of the 25% – more than half preferred to look after their children rather than return to paid work for an employer.
Now data can be interpreted to support or detract from any point, so I won’t make any absolutes regarding what this data means, but perhaps you will indulge me some hypotheses:
- H1 The preferences of women in Australia demonstrate an unconscious societal bias – that it is a woman’s role to look after children.
- H2 This unconscious societal bias makes it more likely that women will compromise her own career goals if her career goals cause a time sacrifice to her child care responsibilities.
- H3 Career development experiences, promotional opportunities, workplace friendships and the ability to be a good corporate citizen are more available to women with no dependent children, and men.
- H4 Trying to juggle paid work with childcare responsibilities is likely to cause an increased level of stress and anxiety for women (that can only be dulled by a long, deep glass/bottle of buttery, buttery chardonnay)
Potentially, what we think is our choice to stay home and take care of the children is actually an unconscious bias?
Potentially, if Australia evolved past child care responsibilities being a woman’s role we would see a higher participation of women in the workforce, a higher number of women in executive and board level roles, and no salary gap between men and women doing the same role.
On a macro level there are bigger prizes available too. Gender diversity is a lead indicator of a society’s readiness to accept other forms of diversity and so progress on legalizing same sex marriage, Australia’s treatment of refugees, the retirement age all hinge on our ability to challenge our bias to leverage the value.
At the very least we should aim to examine our preferences, reflect on them and adjust them accordingly. We have an opportunity to interrupt a cycle and teach our children about gender equality in a way they will never need to unlearn. Seems easier than wearing boots the whole of summer, but each to their own, right?!!
Lori Tyrell of OneThreeHR is joining @GGapGone for a WEBINAR ON UNCONSCIOUS BIAS. CLICK HERE to tune in. Lori coaches CEO’s, MD’s, leaders and HR professionals to reinvent the way they leverage HR to build profitable businesses. With a corporate background and a life-long affinity for the entrepreneurial market, Lori is in demand across Australia for her insights on a range of talent issues – Unconscious Bias included. Join us and you’ll see why.