Women in the workplace: Why should we pay attention to insidious gender bias?

By Hoe I Yune, Mar 26, 2020

Last week, part one of our two-part “Women in the Workplace” series explored why more women aren’t whistleblowing against gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Read about it here: https://dayre.me/story/45fc45a870.

Today, I look at a more subtle form of gender inequality faced by women in the workplace.

When you hear about gender discrimination at work, you would probably think of blatant discrimination such as a woman getting fired when she announces that she is pregnant, someone coming back from maternity leave only to find out that her role has been given away to someone else, someone getting sexually harassed by a superior, or a colleague who talks to women in a condescending manner. But those overt forms of gender discrimination are not what I want to talk about today. I want to address systemic insidious bias — biases that women encounter daily, and may not even not realise are tripping stones in her career path.

What I mean is the uneven distribution of the mental load within a heteronormative relationship, discrepancies in pay for similar jobs, women being subject to unreasonable expectations for their appearances, and leadership abilities being called into question based on a woman’s likeability factor. 

Many of these instances aren’t obvious violations of HR guidelines or clear legal cases but they might just be holding you back from reaching the upper echelon of the career ladder. 

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In 2018, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern drew worldwide attention when she attended the United Nations general assembly meeting with a baby in tow. It made headlines because, well, how often do you see a leader bringing a baby to a meeting?

To begin with, there are not many women in leadership positions. Not only is it very rare to find a woman in politics, but women are also underrepresented in senior management roles in business. By this, I don’t mean there are fewer female managers but there are fewer women in C-suite positions (senior management executives who impact company-wide decisions). 

Somehow, women climb up the career ladder to a certain point and no matter how well they perform in comparison to their male counterparts, they wind up lagging behind or dropping out of the rat race over time. It’s hard to ignore anecdotes and studies which indicate that the gender wage gap kicks into full force after women have children.

It makes me wonder: if I want to start a family one day, must I choose between my career and my child? In a heteronormative relationship, must I sacrifice one in order to achieve the other? 

Witnessing Jacinda Ardern juggle both career and parenting was incredible because it sent the powerful message that one can become a mother without compromising on career success. Yet I wondered why it is not more common among women in the workplace and what contributes towards the current status quo. 

The uneven distribution of the mental load

Men are more educated and willing to share the workload at home these days, but women still bear the brunt of the mental load in heteronormative relationships. The mental load is a list of invisible menial tasks that could include replenishing the fridge, attending parent-teacher meetings, signing parents’ notes for school, or comforting children when they're sad. It’s the little project management tasks that add up. 

Even if a husband takes a child to a doctor’s appointment, the wife is usually the one who looks up doctors, books the appointment, tells him where to go, and keeps track of the child’s health forms and vaccination records over the years. 

Sharing the mental load is something that management consultant Jasryn and her husband are trying to navigate so that like him, she can focus on her career and perform at work without the additional mental strain. “Dividing the chores aside, a lot of it has been getting him to recognise when I’m doing the emotional labour. I will point out if something took a lot of effort to organise and in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve said, ‘have you noticed there’s been no need to stock up on dry goods and essentials because we have all this ready at home?’”

“Otherwise to him, it was like, ‘she’s got it under control’ whereas to me, it was like, ‘I can’t believe he’s not helping’,” says Jasryn. On her part, she had to learn not to micromanage. For instance if he doesn’t do the dishes immediately as she would prefer him to, she won’t fault him for it.

We need to start paying more attention to insidious gender bias such as the mental load because if we are not even aware of the problems, there’s no way it will even cross our mind to address them. And even though we might be aware that we pull the mental load at home, we might not realise the impact it can have on our career. 

An analysis by a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts suggests women lose 4 per cent of hourly earnings on average for each child they have, while men earn 6 per cent more. But the narrative shouldn’t be that only a man can continue running the career race at full speed after a family has children. 

Motherhood has been described as noble, and it absolutely is. Motherhood is pretty synonymous with choice and making sacrifices so that others don’t have to. Think: choosing between socialising with colleagues and going home to a child at home or choosing to fight your husband over household chores and just doing it. But to run the career race with the same conditions and at the same speed, we need to even out the mental load and the skew in sacrifices made. 

Traditional stereotypes placing women at home is one of two main reasons that gives rise to the mental load falling on the shoulders of women. The other main reason is men tending to have a greater financial power.

But the two are interlinked. The more time women spend doing mental tasks at home, the less time they have to focus on work, and then the less opportunities there are to attain a promotion. It becomes a cycle.

A practical concern that makes it difficult for a couple to evenly divide the mental load is tied to the wage gap. “If you’re married to a man and your husband or partner is earning more than you, it makes sense that you’re not going to go on shared parental leave if you have children. Logically it makes sense for the parent who earns less to go on parental leave and that is usually the mother,” says Sereena Abbassi, M&C Saatchi Head of Culture and Inclusion. 

“We need to have more women in positions of power so that they have more financial independence and there’s more flexibility when it comes to family dynamics. I know a lot of men who would love to stay home and look after their babies but it just doesn’t make financial sense for them to do so.”  

Companies also need to think about ways to improve opportunities for men and women alike. Something that companies could implement are opportunities to work remotely and allowing employees to leave early for a child’s concert or doctor’s appointment. And these should not just be maternal benefits but parental ones. 

In Jacinda Ardern’s case, part of the reason why she can juggle both a career and motherhood is because of how supportive her fiance Clarke Gayford is as her baby’s primary carer. There are women who choose to be stay-at-home mums or take on heavier responsibilities on the household and family front, but should someone wish to pursue her career, why should she feel like she can’t? Likewise the option for men to take on a heavier responsibility on the homefront should also be on the table. 

The unfair importance placed on a woman’s looks

Another gender bias is how a woman’s worth is so intrinsically tied to the way that she looks and dresses. As women strive to be treated as equals to their male counterparts in many industries, wearing professional clothing and looking polished has emerged as a way to exude competence. Comparing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Obama only wore gray or blue suits during his presidency and was quoted in Vanity Fair saying, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” Yet Hillary Clinton was endlessly criticised in the media for wearing all-too-similar pantsuits. Fashion consultant Tim Gunn once infamously said, “Why must she dress that way? I think she's confused about her gender!”

It is ridiculous to think that a woman who’s running for one of the most powerful positions in office is being attacked continuously on what she wears, even though it has nothing to do with whether or not she should be voted into office.

It really makes you wonder what the everyday woman faces in trying to climb up the career ladder. Would Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg — one of the few recognisable women in the male-dominated tech industry — be able to show up at a meeting in a hoodie and t-shirt like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and still command the same amount of respect? 

The misconception that women leaders need to be likeable to be effective

What’s seen as an effective leader seems to mean different things for men and women. Walking a tightrope between being ambitious and caring, women are usually obligated to take on so-called “feminine tasks” like taking lunch orders and are expected to be more nurturing on top of being ambitious and competent at their jobs. It really makes you think — why is it that on top of acing work, female leaders are often expected to be the “office mum”?

“There’s an analogy that goes, “to be an iron fist within a velvet glove” — I think the most successful women I’ve come across are almost fiercer and tougher than men but they’ve got this incredible ability of using their feminine energy to convey messages. It’s a real balancing act,” says Ms Abbassi of the need for female leaders to be likeable. 

Law professor Joanne Williams who penned the book What Works for Women at Work dubs the solution to this as “gender judo”. It’s a practice whereby you embrace the office mum stereotype and are “warm and nurturing” with just enough authoritativeness, so you can get the respect you need for a cohesive workplace. 

But the tricky thing is, when women are expected to do more than a man, it becomes an opportunity cost. When a woman chooses to dedicate her time to certain things like the mental load at home or “feminine tasks” in boardroom meetings, these tasks wind up taking her away from decision-making in other areas. On top of that, such gestures can be perception forming and reinforce the stereotype that these are “feminine tasks”. 

Other quiet ways that gender bias can manifest in male-dominated environments is through social activities. “If companies are planning an activity in the middle of a three-day conference, it can be alienating to choose a half-day social event that generally speaking might be more popular with a particular gender. This matters because a lot of business deals are done through social activities and if women don’t get to participate, they don’t get to move up the career ladder,” Ms Abbassi explains.

It’s little things like this that women still go through every day and emerge as tripping stones in one’s career progress. I know it’s not harassment or assault. I know that we’ve come a long way since the days where women could not attend university or lead companies, or even drive or vote. But I think we should also pay attention to insidious gender bias as they might unknowingly be holding not just women but men from living their best lives. It might also be unknowingly holding companies back from performing better. 

It is such a shame because diversity will always benefit a workplace. So-called feminine traits like showing empathy, being emotional and displaying generosity are proving that leadership traits shouldn’t be confined to archaic boxes. For male and female leaders alike.

Describing herself as an “empathetic leader”, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern was the second female world leader to give birth while in office and she is determining her own leadership style. In the wake of the mass shooting in her country last year, in which 51 worshippers were killed, she drew worldwide praise for taking concrete action while also showing compassion. Not only did she take swift action in banning military-style semi automatic weapons, but she wore a hijab and grieved alongside the victim’s families. She said of New Zealand’s Muslims, “We are one, they are us”. 

In the past, we were often told that being a good leader means that you can’t show vulnerability but when Jacinda Ardern exhibited compassion and openness to vulnerability, it was a sign that a new wave of leadership has arrived. 

We need to open up the definition of what it means to be a leader and companies are increasingly aware of this. M&C Saatchi appointed Ms Abbassi as head of culture and inclusion to increase the number of women in senior leadership equity holding positions.

10 years ago, it was unthinkable that there would be someone with such a job title. But it is heartening that today it is a reality. For change to happen, there needs to be a domino effect. First, conversations about gender bias need to spark an interest in those who are in power. These people will then be more motivated in making decisions such as getting more women into the boardroom or taking women's needs into consideration. And that's how the ripple effect takes place. When women fight for equality, it’s not about being treated exactly like a man, but it’s about fairness given life’s circumstances. 

What’s crucial about Ms Abbassi’s role is it’s not just about saying that we want to progress the careers of women but also educating the people who are in positions of power to promote and progress our women’s careers. 

Often enough, excluding women isn’t a conscious choice but just a case of not knowing what you don’t know. When decision-makers who are mostly men lack the lived experience of a woman, they’re more prone to being blind to a woman’s needs.

At the end of the day, it should not be that women have to run a 100m obstacle course while men run a 100m race. 

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This month, Dayre celebrates International Women’s Day with two series. The first was a four-part series entitled “What does gender inequality look like in my country”, and was published over the first two weeks of the month. Today and last Thursday, we published two opinion pieces about the discrimination that women face at work.

Writer's Note:

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. A believer in gender equality and living your best life, I get candid about money matters in relationships and whether I can really wear whatever I want on my personal account. 

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