Most of us would be familiar with the old adage that actions speak louder than words. What we really think and feel is seen so clearly in what we do, regardless of what we say we believe. This is nowhere more readily seen than the area of gender bias. The push towards gender equality has been advancing since the early 20th century. It began when women across the globe demonstrated for the right to vote. While, on the surface, gender equality is touted as the norm, gender bias is still operating in many covert ways. Three ways this happens are bias in the voices we privilege, in the idea of promotion by merit and in our jokes and language.
Bias privileges the voices we listen to.
I grew up in a conservative Christian tradition. I went to church every Sunday and listened to the minister give his message. The voices of authority in my formative years were all male. As an adult, I leaned into male conversations. I was convinced they were more articulate and learned. In studying for my degree, the texts recommended were primarily from male authors. Token female voices were thrown in for an alternate or fringe viewpoint. It took me decades to realise that I privileged men’s voices. I realised I needed to begin listening to the voices and opinions of women.
While I claimed to support gender equality my actions in listening to the voices of men rather than those of women showed my true attitudes. Once we become aware of an unconscious bias, we have the choice as to whether we allow it to continue to influence our lives and decision-making.
Bias works against promotion on merit.
Second, is bias in promotion on merit alone. This attitude is often loudly touted but I question the validity of the ‘merit alone’ claim. At the base of most organisations, gender balance is fairly even. However, as the structure tapers, fewer women are in middle and upper management. There are even less at board level. Those, both men and women, who argue for promotion based on merit as a valid alternative to quotas, fail to recognise that with men more readily promoted than women we are communicating that women are less capable than men across many fields – and very few of us would willingly say that out loud.
The gender bias towards men is embedded in the systems that support organisations. Gender bias is part of the very structure of corporations. This is not surprising given that business, science, academia – indeed most areas of endeavour – have been the playground of men for millennia. To truly support gender equality and combat covert gender bias, we must address just how both systems and structures favour men and disadvantage women.
Bias operates in the language we use.
A third way gender bias operates at an unacknowledged level is in the language we use and the jokes we tell. As a mother to three sons, I spent much of their teenage years telling them that just because something was funny didn’t make it right. This was in response to their predilection for humour at the expense of others or which denigrated or degraded others. And it’s not only men who use humour and language in this way. Women do as well, such as when we refer to other women as ‘bitches’. Language that dehumanises places barriers between people that are resistant to equality. We can’t say we support gender equity if we dehumanise others by our language or denigrate them by our humour.
Gender bias is alive and well and functions unnoticed and unacknowledged in our language, attitudes and systems. Both men and women suffer from gender bias and it operates in both trivial and important arenas of life. When our actions speak louder than our words with regard to gender bias, we are both complicit in its impact and responsible for its demise.