Breaking the Bias: IWD 2022

Breaking the Bias: International Women's Day 2022

Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is ‘Breaking the Bias’, so it seems appropriate to reflect on what bias is and how it impacts every aspect of our lives. It is impossible to discuss issues of inequalities without considering bias, whether conscious or unconscious, and how bias allows inequalities to continue. Everyone has biases, made up from their individual lived experience, but learning how to interrupt bias from decision making is vital for improving Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion across our society.

The Dictionary defines bias as, “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.” The majority of bias is unconscious, a snap assessment or decision our brains make on autopilot in fractions of a second. And often, we are biased towards people who are similar to ourselves, people who look like us, have the same knowledge and experiences as us. But this is where bias leads to inequality.

Research from Yale has shown that when presented with identical applications, with the only difference being one with the name Jennifer and the other with John, recruiters across the board favoured John’s application in all four criteria of competence, hireability, mentoring, and recommended a higher starting salary. All of the recruiters had training in being objective, but all favoured John’s application over Jennifer’s identical one – subconsciously John was deemed a more fitting candidate for the role solely based on gender.

Our unconscious biases are influenced by a number of things, including our background, our cultural environment and our personal experiences. We all see the world through a different lens based on the combination of these, and so we will each hold different individual unconscious biases. The important thing to understand however is that this is not innate, it is a learned behaviour. Therefore, we can learn to create different automatic responses by slowing down our decision making and questioning what exactly is informing our snap judgements.

If everyone learned and implemented these skills and techniques to intercept and review biased thoughts in their decision making it would help society to overcome many inequalities that have a basis in stereotyping and assumptions.

Globally the talent of millions of people is lost to preconceived notions of the type of roles a person of a certain gender, ethnicity, or ability should be doing. And, of course, where those identities intersect there are even more barriers to accessing certain opportunities and pathways.

At Equate Scotland we often talk about the ‘Leaky Pipeline’ where women are lost from STEM careers at every stage of the talent pipeline. School subject selection and college and university degree choices are heavily influenced by gender stereotypes and external pressures. With only 16% of technology and engineering graduates being women. With 70% of women STEM graduates not remaining in the sector long-term. With it being difficult to return to STEM careers after taking family leave, with limited part-time or job share opportunities available. With only 12% of women in STEM management positions. Each of these stages results in more and more women and their potential being lost from the STEM industries.

It isn’t just personal bias that needs to be overcome but data bias. There is an enormous data gap throughout the entirety of human history where women’s stories were largely erased, overlooked, or forgotten. This pattern continues through to today as we live in a world that has largely been designed to fit men’s needs. Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women, lays out this data discrepancy in almost 400 pages of revelations and eye-opening observations.

Many algorithms from major tech companies are formed from datasets that are skewed heavily to white, male, able-bodied people. They miss perspectives from women, other ethnic groups, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, but are allowed to make decisions on behalf of everyone, whilst only fulfilling the needs of a few.

A great deal of skill, talent, and innovation is missed out on in the STEM and Built Environment sectors through gender and wider inequalities. However, this landscape is starting to improve. There is greater awareness on an individual, organisational, sectoral, and societal level about ingrained bias, inequalities, and privilege. Through this understanding, we hope that meaningful change is being implemented across the board to enable equal access to opportunities for people of all genders, races, sexualities, and abilities.

There is a greater commitment than ever before from both policymakers and employers to recruit, retain, and invest in more diverse talent. Recognising that diversity and inclusion is vital to ensuring Scotland can be a trailblazer in innovation, success, and equality. Understanding that giving everyone a fair chance to participate will help widen the talent pool, leading to greater diversity of ideas, and consequently, greater advancements across sectors.

There is work to be done at every stage of the talent pipeline to mitigate bias and ensure people feel able to follow the career paths they are most engaged in and fulfilled by. From schools to further and higher education institutions, apprenticeships, graduate programmes, and workplaces there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that opportunities are available to everyone and that recruitment and decision making is done in an impartial and inclusive manner. Sectors and jobs need to be regarded as non-gendered to help combat stereotyping and allow men and women to pursue what interests them unhindered by societal pressures.

Equate Scotland is providing a series of events over the next couple of months to help you take steps to challenge unconscious bias and help level the playing field for women in STEM.

On a personal level, we all need to remember to take a moment, slow down our decision making, analyse our thoughts, and then make informed choices. If we all do that, we can start to erase and lessen the impact bias has on our society at large.