Workplaces haven’t worked for women as long as I’ve been alive (and it would be great to see something change before I die).
They don’t work for women primarily because we are all stuck in the past and confused by labels, categorisations and stereotypes that have been reinforced culturally and socially since birth. This confusion has been labelled: ‘unconscious bias’.
Unconscious bias is reinforced through cultural and social norms and gender dynamics and informs how we think of ourselves and our role as women, and how we think of men and their roles.
Unconscious bias informs assumptions, judgements and assessments about our competence and skills, who is most suitable for certain roles, and about how much we should be paid.
It informs who we decide to surround ourselves with, advise us and live with.
It informs policy and politics and decisions made on our behalf by people who have not experienced the world as we do: decisions made on a moment to moment basis by individuals, leaders and politicians.
Unconscious bias is not malicious or intentional; it is a function of that part of our minds we do not have access to – the part of our minds filled with knowledge, experiences, wisdom, insights, bigotry, fear, experiences that we’ve accumulated without even being aware of it.
Unconscious bias means that even though we think we are being rational and making informed choices, often we limit our choices without being aware of it.
An example of how unconscious bias plays out is the familiar domestic choices most families make about who is going to take primary care of the children.
This example was provided by Mr Tom Elliott, of 3AW, when he interviewed me this week.
And if I had more time in the interview I would have explored this further, because, Mr Elliott, when you and your wife rationally and consciously decided that your wife should stay at home to look after your child, it is quite possible that both you and your wife were influenced by unconscious impulses to conform to what was expected.
I’m not for one moment suggesting it was not the right choice, (if it works for you all, then of course it is), but our minds are really crafty. Our conscious minds are great at defending and rationalising our decisions so they make sense to us, even if actually, they don’t.
Many women have made similar choices, which they defended at the time, then later questioned, because of the impact of that ‘choice’ on their careers, emotional and physical well being or educational opportunities. Later they wondered why they did not negotiated a different arrangement with their partners.
Because the bummer is, that often women’s career opportunities are impacted by their decisions to take time out of the work force or to be the primary carers.
One of the reasons I do the work I do is because even in 2014, women who return to the workplace after maternity leave suffer discrimination and bias that includes:
Missing out on challenging or interesting work because of assumptions made about:
- Their reliability: ‘Women are primary carers: it’s about reliability and regularity – can we depend on them when they’re primary carers?’ (Senior executive man)
- Their commitment: ‘I worked fulltime for two months, because I was on a project, I went to all the meetings. They had a meeting at lunch time one day and on that day I had to go to my child’s school. I was side lined from that project from that day.’ (Managerial Woman)
- Their priorities: ‘I’ve heard evidence from a woman that she was told she’d thrown her career away when she went on maternity leave.’ (Executive woman)
- Their capability and competence: ‘There’s an assumption you’ve lost half your brain after children.’ (Executive woman)
- Their contribution: ‘The work I do in the evening is not visible. I may stay extra hours but everyone thinks I’m not working enough.’ (Executive woman)
These assumptions are reinforced by individual experiences that have nothing to do with the women themselves: ‘My male supervisor also had young kids and said ‘it never worked for me so you can’t do it.’ (Junior woman who wanted to work from home one day a week).
And are informed by stereotypes: ‘Women have a certain role in society generally and it’s not at highest levels of management. Our age group view women as house maker, they’re expected to stay home, look after the kids…’ (Senior Man)
It affects women’s confidence: ‘When someone crushes your aspirations by making an assumption you begin to wonder if it’s you or them.’ (Managerial woman)
And results in many women deciding they can’t be bothered going further, or that it’s too hard, or they don’t fit in:‘If we want to have kids, there is an internal dialogue, over-analysis and we talk selves out of going for things.’ (Senior woman)
‘Women don’t want to go to the top because of the pressure and the inability to manage the work load at executive levels with family commitments.’ (Woman, Manager)
It is a reinforcing cycle that means women themselves begin to second guess their options and choices, then defend these choices rationally rather than negotiating terms that would make career progression viable:
‘There are a number of [executive] women whom I’ve mentored and encouraged to go for [a senior executive] job, who say ‘I don’t think I could make the commitment because of family responsibilities’, or they think they should wait until their kids are at school. They have the capability and skills to do the job, the job has to be shaped to fit in around life, but we don’t shape our terms. We don’t think: ‘you need me more than I need you so I need to negotiate the times and hours at work etc.’ (Senior executive woman)
Being the feminist guru I am, I know that many of the limitations, the assumptions, categorisations and judgements are figments of our very rigid minds.
We have learned to believe that how we see the world, how we interpret the world, what we think we know is all there is. And it’s not.
The work I do with my colleague, Dr Natalie McDonagh, with senior leaders and their organisations, is to help people become less rigid in their thinking. We work to cultivate inclusive minds and inclusive workplaces, so that all staff, menand women, are valued for the experience they have and the skills they have, and have full and equal opportunities to contribute.
The work we do is focused on expanding how we think so we can become more creative in how we allocate work, define roles and people.
The work we do is focused on ensuring that organisations harness the full value of all their talented staff and provide opportunities for everyone to contribute by recognising and valuing their differences and accommodating that difference because it makes sense.
And because I am the Feminist Guru, I know that this work is important.