Opinion | Acknowledge the unconscious biases to recognize the ‘natural strengths’ of women

Women are often said to be good only in some industries and are dismissed when they show interest in others, like manufacturing. Photo: iStock

26 Dec 2018 | Anuradha Das Mathur

Biases, such as women cannot negotiate well, have serious implications at the workplace

Nithya Palaniyappan, a student at the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, wanted to ‘shadow’ a senior woman leader in the automobile sector as part of her prescribed curriculum. However, it seems corporate India doesn’t really have one in this sector. In fact, a meticulous search into many sectors led to a series of disappointing revelations around the industries and roles that display a deep-rooted bias against women.

According to our online survey among millennial women, close to 60% believe that organizations prefer hiring women in human resources department but when it comes to sales or operations, women find it tough to find takers. About 40% felt that sales departments are biased in favour of men while 44% believe that employers would much rather have men in operations roles. Our sample also pointed out that 90% of the secretarial roles in organizations are occupied by women.

Stereotypes continue to wreak havoc as the professional world perpetuates the belief that women possess certain ‘natural’ strengths that make them more suitable for certain roles, departments or industries. In fact, even as one fights the blue-pink bias for young children, there is the new concept of ‘pink-collar’ or ‘female-oriented’ jobs like that of a baby sitter, florist, day-care worker or a nurse. Typically, these require far less professional training than white-collar professions.

As pervasive as the notion of natural strengths, is that of ‘weaknesses’ that women display. Women aren’t good negotiators, they struggle with numbers, they don’t think ‘big’ enough – are common refrains. These loosely-formed biases have serious implications for women at work. For instance, one of our respondents said that whenever she prepared a quantitative report at her previous workplace, she was asked to get it checked by her male peer before submitting it to her boss.

Women are often overlooked for roles in certain sectors and get cajoled into ‘naturally’ good fits like hospitality, personal banking, travel, education, media and public relations.

Even as we have been building an all—women’s management practice programme, we have received endless suggestions about the courses we ‘must’ include in our curriculum—including communications, public relations, HR and personal banking. While we have steered away from these stereotypes as much as possible, we have also had to fight unconscious biases among some of our faculty who believed case studies on the automobile industry would not be ‘relevant’ for an all-women’s cohort. Pushing them to smash these stereotypes in the classroom is a small step towards removing these deep-rooted, often unfounded biases that seep through into workplaces.

Recent studies in the field of gender and identity theories conceptualize masculinity and femininity as dualist constructs, and explain that people possess both masculine and feminine traits but to varying degrees—as opposed to earlier theories of gender as a single, bipolar construct. Conversations with gender studies experts suggest that the spectrum of attributes required at work are largely the same for women and men—but the differences at the extreme ends of masculinity and feminity are what get highlighted, compared and eventually exaggerated to gender stereotyping. As an example, isn’t it interesting that all the cooks at a dhaba along the highway are men, but when they get back home, they expect a meal cooked by their wife.

On a positive note, despite the fact that women feel discriminated against with respect to departments and industries, 55% of our respondents—urban, educated, millennial women—feel they are at par with their male colleagues at work, a happy divergence in thought from the previous generation. Given a new understanding of gender, and newly founded confidence in our millennial girls, isn’t it time for workplaces, too, to shed their conscious and not-so-conscious biases?

The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.

Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Mohini Gupta.