Earlier this week I attended an event at Utah Valley University as part of their on-going work to “Strengthen the Impact of Girls and Women.” The workshop I attended was “Make the Glass Ceiling Visible: Unpacking Unconscious Bias to Advance Opportunities for Women” presented by Dr. Kyle Reyes.
He did a great job describing bias and privilege, the idea that there are some things we simply do not have to think about, like being right-handed in a world made for right-handers. Lefties, however, do have to think about it. They have to think about how to hold scissors, how not to get ink all over their hand while writing left to right and where to sit when out to dinner. Unconscious bias for right-handers even showed up when YouTube launched its first app for Apple’s iOS. Videos appeared upside down for lefties because engineers had optimized the app for right-handed users.
We all have bias, or lenses through which we view the world. Bias against saber-tooth tigers helped our ancestors stay alive. We often don’t see it happening to us, we just know something is off. More than 30 years ago, Faye Crosby, a social psychologist wrote about “The Denial of Personal Discrimination.” As she describes it, “Working women in one survey knew well that women workers do not generally receive the rewards they deserve. But in most cases, the women appeared to imagine — quite erroneously — that they personally avoided sex discrimination,” even when it is objectively true and they can see it happening in general.
In a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” authors Ibarra, Ely and Kolb note, “Many women have worked hard to take gender out of the equation — to simply be recognized for their skills and talents. Moreover, the existence of gender bias in organizational policies and practices may suggest that they have no power to determine their own success.”
So-called second-generation bias is largely unconscious, or implicit. It does not mean that there is an immediate or direct threat to any individual but rather it creates a context that allows stereotypes to explain why women — as a group — still bump into glass ceilings. Organizations say they believe that women are just as competent as men, but every time a leadership role opens it, it’s filled by a man, because they “just can’t find” a women with the right skill set.
“You cannot be what you cannot see” creates unconscious bias across many areas of life. Many organizational structures were created to fit men’s lives and many informal networks still largely exclude women. A pick-up basketball game, golfing, the locker room are all places where hiring decisions are made and deals informally completed. They are also heavily dominated by one gender.
Women also have the double bind Sheryl Sandberg talked about in her book “Lean In.” In most cultures, leadership traits are largely considered masculine traits — decisive, assertive, independent. Only a handful of leadership traits are also considered feminine — creative, understanding and helpful. When women assert themselves, they are labeled bossy — or the other B-word. And, for crying out loud, an entire industry has been built around helping women get just the “right look” to be successful.
I know people freaked out over “Binders of Women” during a presidential campaign. But the reality was, Mitt Romney recognized that there was disparity and was proactive in his approach to breaking through that invisible barrier of unconscious bias.
I also know that some people label women as “playing the victim card” if they point out the many unseen barriers. I disagree. Pointing out problems is not the same as perpetuating them. It is not “being a victim” to point out injustice. Rather, it’s the only way to begin to fix the problems.
There’s a Twitter account I follow, @manwhohasitall, that parodies the things women often hear, usually just by switching the gender on actual statements. A recent example: “TODAY”S DEBATE: Should universities subordinate intellectual content in favor of including men on panels?” and ““My wife is a brilliant mum. She EVEN changes nappies. She’s great, I’m SO lucky.” Jacob, busy dad of 6. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
I am glad that UVU and other organizations across the state are starting to have this conversation. It’s an important one.
Holly Richardson would have been a suffragette, right along with Emmaline B. Wells and Martha Hughes Cannon, out marching for women to be able to have a voice, ignoring the chorus of voices telling them to go home and learn their place.