Second Generation Gender Bias: Coming to Anywhere Near You

This post was originally posted on the Eternalist  Blog 

If I have to, for a minute more, endure men taking up all kinds of unnecessary space on public transport, I will lose it. I won’t lose it physically, but I will launch a verbal tirade towards them in my head, as I watch their limbs extend for miles and their mere presence physically squeeze the space out of their surroundings. Why is it so difficult for him not to keep his legs closer together when he sits next to me? Why must his arms reach across three seat backs? But more importantly, why is he never compelled to move when I perch next to him, relegating me to the inch of space left on what would otherwise be a free seat?

I’ve written before that public spaces can sometimes imitate soft war zones for women. Men belong in these places while women are visiting, often without permission. Cat-calling, space-taking… women are made to feel like outsiders in a space that should be their own. We use these spaces to get to work, to do our daily outings, we use them for protest, to express ourselves but also for leisure and family time. If one sex feels pushed out of these spaces, their access to these different aspects of life also suffers. We saw in the Arab uprisings, how women were an important part of the protests, and how this pointed to a gendered reclaiming of public spaces as an important component of the female emancipation process.

Second generation gender bias is the official term for this feeling. That feeling that as women, we don’t quite belong in certain places or in certain roles. Public transport and public spaces more broadly, but boardrooms and positions of power more significantly.

While gender biases point to intentional acts of discrimination, second generation gender bias has a more neutral face, but the underlying practices, values and beliefs remain distinctly male-oriented. As men have traditionally built the organizational systems in which we function, it is inherent that these systems will benefit them,although they may not even recognize it. We sought to overcome the defined gender biases and now we must now tackle the root causes that continue to influence hiring, promoting and perceptions of women in the workplace and in positions of power.

Second generation gender bias results from a number of pervasive sentiments and beliefs that stigmatize women’s actions. The low number of women in leadership roles can result from gender stereotyping, where women are given jobs based on ‘traditional’ roles. This can discourage other women from stepping up to the proverbial plate, making them feel like they are to blame for not succeeding while the women in positions of power are exceptions and had to overcome exceptional hurdles. A woman’s path to leadership can be different than a man’s and is often developed behind the scenes – while men ride their actions into the spotlight. Because of the way we define leadership and power, the first path is ignored while the latter is rewarded, and this can lead to the belief that only men are meant for leadership.

The dearth of women in decision-making positions also makes it difficult for them to establish networks which are so important to opening doors and being recognized in a field. Since we tend to interact with people that resemble our physical and status selves, men invariably join the ‘boy’s clubs’ and it is up to women to jump through hurdles to be included. Women not only do not have many female mentors, but may experience workplace gendered attacks from their female superiors, given the paucity of roles available to them. It would also appear that while women are mentored, men’s mentors tend to promote or sponsor them far more than they do women, going out of their way to provide them with advancement opportunities.

Women also face unexamined assumptions and criticisms about their personal lives or their risk-taking abilities when it comes to promotions, and a lack of support when it comes to rejoining the workforce after maternity leave, as companies fail to grasp the gendered differences in workloads and familial responsibilities. These criticisms extend to penalizing women for taking on traditionally ‘male’ qualities in the office: assertiveness, power, decisiveness and open pride. Women’s behaviours and dress are subject to judgment, and she must navigate the fine line between stylish and frumpy, attractive or bimbo. We applaud women for taking care in their dress, but then call them superficial for the same actions.

Often many of the above experiences interact, creating inevitable double-binds. A woman might be gender stereotyped in a positive manner in an evaluation (she is caring and thoughtful), but this might lead her to also be evaluated negatively as incompetent or not suitable for leadership, because

A. those qualities are not valued and

B. she is unable to express other (traditionally male) qualities because she knows she will be penalized for those too.

Ultimately, second generation gender bias seems to point to the continued cultural view of women in positions of power as an anomaly – making her every move, decision, presentation and fashion choice subject to scrutiny and judgment. At the end of the day, we are not judged against the same nor equal set criteria or standards as our male counterparts.

There are solutions.

Measurements of accountability on diversity and inclusion shed light on what is really happening in the workplace and put a quantifiable touch on pervasive sentiments. Quantitative evaluations should begin at the recruitment pool-level, analyze retention rates and continue all the way to the number of women in positions of power at the CEO level. With this data, gender mainstreaming is an key second step to uprooting the causes of second generation gender bias. It can seek to understand the quantitative data through a gendered lens and work to correct inequalities through the creation and use of checklists, indicators and quotas.

Managers, supervisors and decision-makers must then be held accountable to these controls. A system of penalties and rewards with the importance of diversity and inclusiveness receiving top-down support, both in face-time and financial support, is a great way to motivate managers to prioritize diversity. Trainings should necessarily involve men and women and concentrate on highlighting discriminating or different behaviours and work towards educating and changing attitudes. Outcomes should include understanding and supporting flexible working hours, providing mentorship and promotion training and presenting staff with role models that demonstrate inclusiveness and diversity in their every day work activities. Diversity should also be mainstreamed through the hiring process, so a new generation of employees that prioritizes inclusiveness and diversity is created and not simply hoped for.

It is important to remember that the tendency will be for structures to favour a masculine (and usually white) approach to work and leadership unless consistent efforts are made to alter this course. Men still get more of the big projects with a larger portion of the funding, and then receive more attention for the work accomplished. There are still not comprehensive reintegration packages for women who wish to begin families nor is there cohesive understanding of the importance of offering part-time work nor of it remaining distinctly part-time (and not full time for part time pay). There is, of course, the persistent gender wage gap and womenleaving the workforce in droves due to a lack of mobility, childcare issues and the inevitable glass ceiling.

Perhaps when the trifecta of business, media and politics does a better job in supporting the promotion of women into and in prominent positions of power, the trickle down effect will not only be more women vying for these roles but also an acceptance of women as ‘normal’ in these positions. Until then it seems we are still apprehensive of the female body – and view any quest for power, leadership or decision-making roles as completely incongruent with what her role ‘should’ be.

Photo Credit: Eternalist 

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