Last Word

01.08.14

Unconscious bias: it’s all in the subtleties

Source: Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2014

Over the years negative, hostile behaviour towards women at work has generally been deemed overt sexism and therefore unacceptable. However, the subtle and no less insidious sexism continues to fester in the background, says Snéha Khilay, a professional development consultant and trainer.

There are comments and behaviours, whether made by men or women, which devalue women. During a recent training session, I conducted an exercise titled ‘Acceptable Continuum’, providing statements to be categorised as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’. I noted with concern some participants becoming indignant that ‘I am going through a blonde moment’* or referring to women as ‘girls’ was generally considered ‘unacceptable’. This indignation was verbalised by comments along the lines of ‘This is PC gone mad’, ‘We are a walking-on-eggshells culture’, ‘I can’t say anything now?’ etc.

I have worked with various organisations and have noted that colleagues sometimes use subtly negative language patterns – either out of habit, or because it has become so unconsciously ingrained into office culture and banter that it has become acceptable. There is a lack of awareness, or a perception that if no harm is intended by these comments, no-one should be offended.

In some organisations, colleagues have explained that when women have stated ‘I must have gone through a blonde moment’, this seems to have given some men the freedom and permission to make disparaging comments about women, albeit in jest.

Some of these comments made by men were along the lines of ‘That was good work... for a woman’; ‘Can you be mummy and organise lunch for the next senior management team meeting?’ (made to a female member of that team); ‘I am surprised that you managed to do the project given your childcare responsibilities...’ etc.

It is apparent that sexist humour trivialises the unpleasant reality of sex discrimination behind a smokescreen of harmless banter, and implies that sexist language presented as humour or in jest is to be viewed as acceptable and considered a bonding ritual between colleagues.

I recently attended a board meeting of a public sector organisation, which was also attended by two newly appointed members. I noted that the chair of the board (a man) introduced the new female board member with a detailed background about her family: she had three daughters, was a PTA member and attended a book club. In contrast the male board member’s professional qualifications and professional accomplishments were highlighted.

It was also telling that the chair even introduced the female member with: “I would like to welcome the beautiful Jackie** to the board.”

This type of subtle sexism leaves some observers feeling uncomfortable but not entirely sure about what. However, the real danger lies in it being possible to see the comment as normal and acceptable. Further, the chair could even argue that he was complimenting Jackie. I later learned that Jackie had similar professional qualifications and accomplishments to those of her male counterpart, not mentioned at the meeting.

Various studies*** reveal that sexist jokes and gender stereotypes are some of the main factors in holding women back from thriving at work. The hard-to-detect comments can have an insidious effect, which over time is profound enough for women to start conforming to the stereotypes instead of focusing on their career advancement. Research findings show some common subtle incidents occurring on average two to five times a week, such as comments that women are not as good as men at certain activities, comments that women are too easily offended or that they exaggerate problems, or choosing women for stereotypical assignments or tasks.

The studies show that, in response to such subtle sexist comments and attitudes, women have been known to perform poorly on cognitive tests. Further, they express feelings of incompetence and even greater dissatisfaction with their work-related performance.

Fundamentally, it is important for all of us to be aware that, whilst we have made huge strides in moving away from explicitly negative and sexually inappropriate behaviour, subtle comments and remarks considered to be innocuous are damaging and help maintain the ripple-like effect of discrimination against women.

We need to be more aware of subtle sexism in the workplace, the need to move away from stereotypes and to place a greater focus on treating people as individuals and not labelling them with the group that they represent.

Notes

* Term usually made by a woman to imply that she had forgotten to do something, is a scatterbrain or is being silly or stupid. The term is used as a get-out clause, a public persona of how ‘vulnerably dumb’ a woman is. It comes from the 1990s, from the stereotypical perception of blonde-haired women as unintelligent.

** Name changed.

*** Melbourne Business School, Pennsylvania State University and Philipps University.

About the author

Snéha Khilay is the founder of Blue Tulip Training, and specialises in cultural diversity, personal effectiveness, unconscious bias, leadership and management development.

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