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.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

 

public sector executive tv

more videos >

latest public sector news

Essex council announces £1bn construction deal

22/03/2019Essex council announces £1bn construction deal

An Essex council has announced a £1bn contract in a joint venture to regenerate council sites and deliver new homes and commercial faciliti... more >
Council to pull out of government schools improvement body over rising costs and ‘major concerns’ over poor management

22/03/2019Council to pull out of government schools improvement body over rising costs and ‘major concerns’ over poor management

A Welsh council is to pull out of a government-run schools improvement scheme over concerns about how it is run and fears that the quadrupling of... more >
Councils' legal challenge against Buckinghamshire merger process rejected

22/03/2019Councils' legal challenge against Buckinghamshire merger process rejected

An application from three district councils for a judicial review of the merger plans to create a single unitary council for Buckinghamshire has ... more >

interviews

Digital innovation in the public sector: The future is now

17/12/2018Digital innovation in the public sector: The future is now

One of the public sector’s key technology partners has recently welcomed a new member to its team. Matt Spencer, O2’s head of public ... more >
Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

17/12/2018Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

It’s no secret that the public sector and its service providers need to invest in technology to help make better use of their resources. Bu... more >
New Dorset Councils CEO on the creation of a new unitary: ‘This is going to be the right decision for Dorset’

05/11/2018New Dorset Councils CEO on the creation of a new unitary: ‘This is going to be the right decision for Dorset’

The new chief executive of one of the new unitary authorities in Dorset has outlined his approach to culture and work with employees, arguing tha... more >
Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

15/10/2018Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

On 6 September, the biggest decision-makers of the north joined forces to celebrate and debate how to drive innovation and improvement through th... more >

editor's comment

25/10/2017Take a moment to celebrate

Devolution, restructuring and widespread service reform: from a journalist’s perspective, it’s never been a more exciting time to report on the public sector. That’s why I could not be more thrilled to be taking over the reins at PSE at this key juncture. There could not be a feature that more perfectly encapsulates this... read more >

last word

The importance of openness after Grenfell

The importance of openness after Grenfell

Following the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy, Lord Porter, chairman of the LGA, argues that if the public are going to have faith in the safety testing process then everything must be out in the o... more > more last word articles >

comment

Camberley inspired: investment and regeneration

11/03/2019Camberley inspired: investment and regeneration

The decline of the Great British high street has been one of the greatest concerns for local councils in recent years, leading to some innovative... more >
Swindon's solar-powered recycling centre saves council cash

11/03/2019Swindon's solar-powered recycling centre saves council cash

Steve Cains, head of power solutions at Public Power Solutions, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Swindon Borough Council, describes the benefits of... more >
National Infrastructure Commission: Progressing the North

11/03/2019National Infrastructure Commission: Progressing the North

The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) National Infrastructure Assessment was released in July 2018, making a variety of recommenda... more >
SARS II: Recovery made easy

11/03/2019SARS II: Recovery made easy

Paul Bentley, of the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), introduces us to the Spend Analysis Recovery Framework: a no win no fee means of carrying ou... more >
Essex council announces £1bn construction deal

22/03/2019Essex council announces £1bn construction deal

An Essex council has announced a £1bn contract in a joint venture to regenerate council sites and deliver new homes and commercial facilities. Brentwood Borough Council has named Morga... more >
Council to pull out of government schools improvement body over rising costs and ‘major concerns’ over poor management

22/03/2019Council to pull out of government schools improvement body over rising costs and ‘major concerns’ over poor management

A Welsh council is to pull out of a government-run schools improvement scheme over concerns about how it is run and fears that the quadrupling of costs could threaten jobs at the local authority.... more >

the raven's daily blog

Councils Can: LGA launches Spending Review campaign

18/03/2019Councils Can: LGA launches Spending Review campaign

Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association, outlines his organisation’s campaign to make sure local government tops to government’s list for this year’s Spending Review. Our #CouncilsCan campaign to influence this year’s Spending Review is well underway and gathering momentum. The money local governm... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >