You’re Biased. Now Break It.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme was “Break the Bias”, calling upon us to imagine a gender-equal world, free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. (Imagine!)

We’re asked to take responsibility to build a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive through our thoughts and actions — in communities, in the workplace, in schools, everywhere.

Let’s talk about work for a second. The majority of women experience bias at work — but most bias is hard to recognize, and even harder to address. Bias is an invisible bind that keeps women down.

Breaking the bias is not just for International Women’s Day. It is everyday. And the onus shouldnt solely be on women to break the bias — although it almost always is!

In other words: Stop fixing women and start fixing workplaces!

Our global reality is bias…

All around the world, women and girls are still not able to fully participate in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. They have less choice and less voice — and are further burdened with the responsibility of rectifying this imbalance.

Women are more likely than men to live in extreme poverty. Women’s unemployment is higher than men. Two-thirds of low-wage workers are women — in the informal economy earning next to nothing, and taking great risks to do so.

Women do the majority of unpaid work — 76% of it. And COVID has only made this worse. Women spend between 2 to 10 more hours a day than men caring for children, the elderly or the sick. And when they do paid work, they earn far less than men — in every occupation. The wage gap is real, with women earning 77 cents to every man’s dollar. Add race and other identity markers in, and that gap gets wider. If the pay gap were to close, the world’s GDP could grow by $12 trillion by 2025.

In positions of power and decision-making, inequality is most visible because women are rendered virtually invisible. There is a persistent lack of women in leadership, with women representing just 27% of all managerial positions. And we all know that there are more CEOs named John than female CEOs… Sorry, John, I just can’t accept this.

Women face bias as women — but this is also compounded due to race, class, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, and a range of other identity markers. All of this has been further compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. COVID has taken pre-existing gender inequalities and amplified them. The bias is bigger, and breaking it is even harder.

In the working world, women who were employed before will not likely be able to re-enter the workforce, unless it is the informal economy, with its own risks and lack of protections. This means trafficking of women and girls, sex for food, and sex for rent all increase. Women’s burden of unpaid care increases — again. More girls than boys are helping at home, lagging behind with studying, and dropping out of school. We don’t even know the extent of it, but we do know that right now 129 million girls are out of school.

We’re two years into our new COVID world, and the resulting rise in work-from-home practices has shown we need a greater understanding of personal and professional lives outside the traditional 9–5. There is opportunity for more equitable division of labor and flexible structures. Gendered responses will make things better. Trust me.

This means doing the right thing as individuals and as institutions — because both people and systems need to change if we are going to make change work.

So… What can companies do?

Firstly, meritocracy is a myth. We assume that the system is fair, and will take care of itself. And so we get lazy. And we actually end up more biased as a result. We need to openly acknowledge that inequalities exist — and then proactively fix them.

Fixing them means courageously changing the rules. Hold up a mirror. Is the company woman-friendly? Family-friendly? For instance, does parental leave include paid maternity and paternity leave? Does the company policy have an inclusive definition of family? Are we countering — or reinforcing — the ‘double bind’ and bias faced by working mothers who need both flexible hours and high enough wages to cover childcare. Have we ever even used the term “working fathers”?!

Think about flexible working hours, travel, transport, relocation, and so on — with a view to promoting the ever-elusive “work-life balance” — in the way that people themselves define it. This will look different for different people. My balance isn’t yours, and so on.

Companies need to counter the culture of unwritten rules, where decisions and deals are made through informal networks, after hours, or in places that aren’t accessible to everyone. For example the cliché gathering of men-in-suits at the bar after work. It sounds outdated — but it still happens. Instead, use formal channels (including formal places and formal working hours) so everyone knows these rules — and has an equal chance to succeed.

Companies also need to be deliberate about the opportunities they provide for women to grow and advance. Feedback given to women in the workplace is often not about career advancement but rather about communication style — not helpful. In other words, what is seen as abrasive in women is viewed as “passionate” in men.

Companies can encourage women to negotiate for more challenging and satisfying roles. Provide coaching, mentoring, networking for women. And trainings for professional development. And gender trainings for everyone — not as a tick-box but as a genuine dialogue that people are invested in. This is necessary for a better workplace.

We need a safe and enabling environment if we want to employ and retain women, and make their work visible. This includes creating safe and anonymous means of communication or complaint, and channels to address issues. With clear guidelines and tools — and zero tolerance for any crap — workplaces can be responsive to the needs and lives of the people who fuel them.

What about you?! What can individuals do?

You’ve got a responsibility too. We all do. Let’s start with this: listen, learn, understand. Start from a place of kindness and curiosity. Do some homework and educate yourself — there are many things going on that we don’t see. Or perhaps don’t want to see.

Ask people who they are, how they feel, what they need. And allow them to tell you. Listen. And if you mess up, apologize, correct your behavior, and do better. This is a fundamental building block for open communication and trust. It is possible.

While we’re all learning, we need to identify, acknowledge, counter our blind spots. We all have elements of unconscious bias — and once we see it, we can’t ever un-see it. We can challenge ourselves to counter our own stereotypes and rewire our stubborn little brains. Self-reflection is better for all of us — and for those around us. People experience inequalities in ways we do not necessarily see. Don’t erase them.

We spend too much time making too many assumptions about who people are and what they can — and can’t — do. Do we assume that a woman with a child won’t be willing to travel for work? Or that a single man who isn’t a parent doesn’t “need” work-life flexibility? Here’s a great idea: let’s not make those assumptions.

We can hold ourselves and others accountable when it comes to women’s presence and power in the workplace. Ask your company to set goals to increase women’s representation. Do not say that qualified women don’t exist. They do exist — absolutely everywhere. If you’re a manager — or a powerful person — use that power to make those things happen. Things won’t evolve on their own. Push forward — firmly.

And when it comes to quotas, implement them. We need to implement temporary measures to level the playing field, while taking into account historic disadvantage.

And when it comes to words — they matter. Words convey beliefs that translate into actions. Send the right message. This also means demonstrating the right behavior with yourself, and calling out bad behavior that you see. Dangerous attitudes translate into more dangerous actions, so speak up! Call out discrimination and inequality in the moment. Behavior is contagious — so we might as well make it good!

At the same time, sometimes you gotta hold your tongue. Women have a voice — what we need is a microphone. Pass that mic! Make space — don’t take space. Men interrupt women three times more often than other men. Ask women to speak first — for a change. Pay attention to who does the talking, and who does the interrupting. There are apps for this — and the results might surprise you.

If you’re speaking, make it good. Be honest and generous. Micro-affirm through small gestures of inclusion and respect. These are the best way to counter those insidious micro-inequities and micro-aggressions. Seek ways to be more fair, more thoughtful, more respectful in dealing with others. And you’ll override your own unconscious bias in doing so.

And then there’s that old adage of a “seat at the table”. Let’s instead build a new table. Look around the tables we occupy: Who’s there? Who does the talking? Who does the deciding? Who is not there? And — what do we lose when they aren’t there?!

Ultimately, biases can be broken, and things can change for the better. We just need to want that change.

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Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!