The theme for International Women’s Day in 2022 is “#BreakTheBias, but you have to notice it in the first place.
… You’re in a team meeting. Your female colleague is late. You’ve noticed she’s seemed very stressed since she got back from maternity leave and has missed a couple of deadlines. Your boss starts the meeting, muttering (loud enough for all to hear) “she’s probably crying in the toilets”.
… You are working hard on attracting a new client. In a strategy meeting, you are discussing who to send to an event where there may be an opportunity to seal the deal. A very experienced female colleague in her early 50s is dismissed as “not the image we want to project”.
… A new female Director is appointed. Your colleague warns you to “watch your back” when dealing with her. “She’s so hard-nosed and aggressive, a real bitch – she’ll shaft anyone to get on”.
You don’t say anything about any of this, even though it makes you feel uncomfortable. Nor does anyone else. But everyone knows what’s going on. Reactions and behaviour are shaped by how we expect or are invited by society to expect women to appear or behave.
This is a complex issue in which unconscious bias plays a big role. It is not even gender specific: women can be biased against other women based on gender expectations, often without realising it. Work can become a toxic environment for any employee impacted by such bias, who feels their voice is not heard or they are being treated unfairly compared to their colleagues.
There are significant costs for employers who don’t recognise these issues or don’t know how to address them. Stress related absence is expensive and puts additional pressure on others. Poor relationships between colleagues can descend into time consuming and destructive grievance procedures. Employees who feel they are being held back may seek new opportunities in a more balanced environment. For those who stay, the feeling that the cards are stacked against them can sap motivation and creativity.
People who see their colleagues treated in this way can find it upsetting and get frustrated by their own reluctance to speak out if they feel they won’t be supported.
Some organisations will need a much bigger culture shift than others to create an environment in which people feel safe identifying bias and calling it out in the knowledge it will be dealt with – and not brushed under the carpet.
At YESS Law we deal with the impact of bias against women on a daily basis. For example, it’s a recurring theme in our work with Maternity Action supporting women who are pregnant, on or returning from maternity leave. Assumptions about their needs and aspirations lead to disagreements and sometimes the breakdown of the working relationship. Not only is it devastating for the women and their families, but when issues of this type are not addressed, it leads to employers losing talented and experienced staff.
We’d love to live in a world where this represents a much smaller part of our work. Where women are treated based on facts and reality, rather than perceptions and assumptions. YESS Law will help #BreakTheBias by supporting employees to challenge constructively wherever it occurs.