Colin Browne | How we can all do better this Women’s Month

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The writer notes how unconscious bias has left women not to be recognised for equal opportunities. The recent Wafcon win by Banyana recently placed the debate of equal pay for all national teams on the table. Photo: iStock
The writer notes how unconscious bias has left women not to be recognised for equal opportunities. The recent Wafcon win by Banyana recently placed the debate of equal pay for all national teams on the table. Photo: iStock

VOICES


It’s no paradox that so many members of what can be colloquially known as ‘the fairer sex’ operate at a level that can reasonably be described as elite.

Pressure creates diamonds and according to a 2021 KPMG report on Advancing the Future of Women in Business, a staggering 81% of women in senior corporate positions have experienced an inordinate amount of pressure both on the way up the ladder and fighting for their seat at the table when they get there.

There’s nothing new here of course.

This Women’s Month, perhaps it’s time to shine a light on how common unconscious biases continue to this day to make 50% of the world akin to a marginalised community, despite their exceptional achievements.

READ: Sophie Williams-de Bruyn | Let’s retain the heritage of the Women’s March

To be clear, unconscious biases are the ones we do not know we have.

You can easily recognise someone who is truly a misogynist the same way you can recognise an open racist or xenophobe because they tell you who they are in word and deed.

However, even those of us who are committed to real equality often act in ways that contradict that, fuelled by preconceived ideas we would entirely disavow if we were aware of how they affected us.

When tennis great Andy Murray won his second Olympic Gold in Rio in 2016, he was asked by a journalist from the BBC what it felt like to be the first person to achieve that feat, even though Venus and Serena Williams have four each.

Great ally that he is, Murray wasted no time in correcting him.

But he could have seen it differently.

It could reasonably be assumed that a sports journalist from the BBC knew of the Williams sisters’ achievements and that what he meant was ‘male tennis player’ and Murray could have simply let it go and answered the question.

Further, you might argue that since the journalist was an expert in his field to have been sent by a leading broadcaster to cover the biggest sporting event in the world, his question boils down to nothing more than a matter of semantics.

What’s a casual omission here and there? Why are we being so sensitive about things?

The root of such questions is our own unconscious bias. Whether we know it or not, and regardless of whether we dare to admit it, our thinking is guided by them every second of every day, and that goes for every single one of us.

If the BBC sport correspondent had openly suggested that women didn’t matter, that Venus and Serena’s achievements were less than Murray’s because they were women, it would likely have created a heated backlash. We’re largely dialled into things when they’re blatant.

What we too often miss, however, are omissions.

Not open statements of superiority or inferiority, but subtle undertones that nevertheless suggest precisely that.

Was that statement sexist? Yes. Was it openly and blatantly sexist? Maybe not. But it all amounts to the same in the end, to people who feel overlooked.

Picture an office scenario in which a male manager was praised for being the first person to lead his department to two top performance awards after two women managers had already achieved that feat.

Could it happen? Has it happened?

Actually, one or another version of that, of overlooking women’s achievements, has been one of the constant features of history.

READ: Money is statistically different for women

When Apollo 11 launched on the first manned mission to the surface of the moon, there was just one woman at Mission Control, a young mathematics graduate and understudy to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s leading rocket engineer, named JoAnn Morgan.

She spent over a decade at NASA, but for most of her time there she worked in buildings that did not have enough women’s toilets, if they had any at all.

At Mission Control, the only one was three floors down from where she worked.

Why? Perhaps because when the building designers thought about who they were catering for, she simply never came to mind. 

We don’t see each other; we see ideas of each other.

However uncommon it remains for fighter pilots to be women, such as Julie Ann Gibson of the Royal Air Force, Mandisa Mfeka of the SA Air Force or Madeline Swegle of the US Navy, they nevertheless make the point that when we present equal opportunities, we find equal capabilities.

The difficulty, even for the open-minded, is getting over the fact that when we think of fighter pilots, we think of Tom Cruise. Or more importantly, when the people in the air force are sifting through applicants for their fighter pilot training academies, they think of Tom Cruise.

Substitute fighter pilot trainee for an accountant, financial manager, CEO, head of HR, language tutor, coder, sport team member, or anything else, and we face the same challenge.

You may not realise that you have an image of what the right person for a role is supposed to look like, be like or sound like, but it’s almost a dead certainty that come the time, you have to choose someone, unless you can be much more deliberate, an unconscious bias will come into play.

This Women’s Month, let us all do better.

Colin Browne is an organisational culture and employee engagement expert and author of How to build a Happy Sandpit.

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