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Unconscious Bias is an Obstacle Every Female Leader Must Overcome

By Megan Meade at Baltic Training


How can we fix something we can’t see in ourselves?

Unconscious bias is, by definition, something that we’re not aware of: the only way to overcome it is to either have our biases pointed out to us or become more aware. Even with awareness, everyone experiences moments where they stumble, and contribute to unconscious bias.

In a Ted Talk, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, noted an instance when she allowed more questions to be asked when there were still raised hands after the two permitted questions: the only raised hands in the room left were men. Men raised their hands because they’ve always been encouraged to push for more, and they were rewarded by having their questions answered, but the women in the room refrained from raising their hand and pushing for more. Without this being pointed out, Sheryl would have been completely unaware that this bias had even occurred: a perfect example of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias results in missed opportunities for women everywhere, and it seeps into every component of our lives: from the language we use to our own perceptions, and that of others.

We, as a society, have perpetuated gender biases so much so that women’s success in leadership is often a double-edged sword. Successful women distance themselves from typically feminine stereotypes: they succeed despite their womanhood, and claim they’re “not like other women,” whilst downplaying the pervasiveness of sexism.

The difference between men and women in leadership is: men are assumed to be natural leaders, whereas women must constantly prove that they are leaders.

Stereotypical masculine behaviour, and traits, are what people perceive to be effective leadership qualities, and when women emulate these traits themselves it’s seen as a betrayal to their femininity. A woman who dares to lead is scrutinised for any divergence from stereotypical female traits and suffers from it. Women in leadership positions are perceived as either competent or likeable – never both.

The lack of women in leadership positions is not due to a biological acuity that has leant men to become ‘better’ leaders: it’s due to our biases. From childhood, we encourage men to push competitively, and dismiss undesirable behaviour as “boys will be boys”. We teach our children that the way men behave is biological, “boys will be boys”, and to be expected of men, but do not lend the same courtesy to girls.

If we continue normalise language that mitigates men’s responsibility it becomes party to the oppression of women: adding to the belief that they are not equal to men, and that they’re biologically unsuited.

The only way we’ll ever move forward is to address unconscious bias now, and work with initiatives to support women into leadership. We need to mentor young women to see their femininity as a part of their success, not a hindrance.

Without change, we will never see a rise in female leadership, and we’ll remain with only 23% of board roles in the FTSE 250 being held by women.

International Women’s Day may provide a platform to start a dialogue around women’s issues, but we must continue this conversation beyond today, otherwise it becomes meaningless rhetoric.

It’s not about just one day: it’s about every day for women everywhere.

#TheFutureIsFemale #PressForProgress #InternationalWomensDay




The lack of women in leadership positions is not due to a biological acuity that has leant men to become ‘better’ leaders: it’s due to our biases.

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