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

Birmingham bin strikes called off following key High Court ruling

21/09/2017Birmingham bin strikes called off following key High Court ruling

Strikes by refuse workers in Birmingham have this week been called off after the union won an important High Court ruling. Unite has called ... more >
IFS: Public sector faces recruitment chaos if pay cap is not dropped

21/09/2017IFS: Public sector faces recruitment chaos if pay cap is not dropped

The public sector will face major recruitment and retention issues if pay restraints, which are pushing wages to historically low levels, are con... more >
‘Fundamental rethink’ on social housing needed as Javid brings forward green paper

20/09/2017‘Fundamental rethink’ on social housing needed as Javid brings forward green paper

A wide-ranging, top-to-bottom green paper on social housing is to be brought forward by the government, Sajid Javid has this week announced. ... more >

interviews

‘The HSCN is the realisation of industry best practice’

30/06/2017‘The HSCN is the realisation of industry best practice’

Keith Smith, public sector business development manager at Virgin Media Business, tells PSE’s Luana Salles that health and social care orga... more >
HSCN: The enabler for a more joined-up public sector

26/06/2017HSCN: The enabler for a more joined-up public sector

Mark Hall, Chief Assurance Officer at Redcentric, discusses NHS Digital’s project, the new Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) and what b... more >
Maintaining the momentum for further devolution

25/04/2017Maintaining the momentum for further devolution

Ahead of this year’s mayoral elections, Lord Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service, tells PSE’s David Stevenson why the argu... more >
New social care funding misses the point

13/04/2017New social care funding misses the point

Clive Betts MP, chair of the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee, reflects on the social care funding released in this year’s ... more >

editor's comment

14/08/2017Time for reflection

A lot has happened since the last edition of PSE was published. In particular, the snap general election delivered an astounding result that many of the pollsters and political experts could not have predicted when Theresa May initially called for it back in April. Chris Painter, Professor Emeritus at Birmingham City University, provides ... 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

Support for councils following Grenfell

04/09/2017Support for councils following Grenfell

Ian Moore, CEO of the Fire Industry Association (FIA), discusses the wider lessons of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire and what measures and assess... more >
A quiet revolution

04/09/2017A quiet revolution

Dermot Ryan, programme director at NHS Digital for the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), talks to PSE about the importance of moving to the ... more >
Effective leadership in uncertain times

04/09/2017Effective leadership in uncertain times

Dr David Beech, lecturer in people management at Salford Business School, argues that continuous renewal and progress is fundamental to effective... more >
Refocusing professional development

04/09/2017Refocusing professional development

Graeme McDonald, managing director of Solace, discusses the importance of taking time out to focus on learning, especially in the ever-changing l... more >
Birmingham bin strikes called off following key High Court ruling

21/09/2017Birmingham bin strikes called off following key High Court ruling

Strikes by refuse workers in Birmingham have this week been called off after the union won an important High Court ruling. Unite has called off the strike as a judge granted an interim injun... more >
IFS: Public sector faces recruitment chaos if pay cap is not dropped

21/09/2017IFS: Public sector faces recruitment chaos if pay cap is not dropped

The public sector will face major recruitment and retention issues if pay restraints, which are pushing wages to historically low levels, are continued by the government, experts have today warne... more >

the raven's daily blog

How do we deliver true social and economic value for the community?

18/09/2017How do we deliver true social and economic value for the community?

Five years on from the introduction of the Social Value Act, Alison Ramsey, frameworks co-ordinator at Scape Procure, reflects on the key questions that prompted the legislation’s introduction. The Social Value Act was an important landmark. It decisively addressed the need for major public projects led by all public bodies to maxim... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >