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What is unconscious gender bias, and why is it a problem?

By Rama Agung-Igusti.  
Rama blog header

Over the next 16 days some of the team at Interchange are going to be embarking on the 16 Day Activist Challenge put together by Women’s Health West. We will be critically looking at and challenging our preconceived ideas of gender roles in our society and look at how they perpetuate violence against women. Throughout the 16 days you will hear stories and reflections from our team around some of the actions set out for this challenge by Women’s Health West.

Below is a piece from one of our consultants, Rama Agung-Igusti.

Unconscious gender bias refers to the gendered assumptions we make about persons or groups, and are said to be automatic and unconscious, and often grounded in negative and harmful stereotypes, influenced by our individual experiences and cultural contexts. These biases can also occur across contexts and can be held by the very people and groups which are being stereotyped. However, importantly, these biases have a significant impact for women when it comes to accessing opportunities and resources, and participation in highly valued and power-laden roles that have been constructed as masculine. Whilst the tangible effects of such biases have been countlessly demonstrated anecdotally, empirically and in practice, one need only look to our male dominated board rooms and governments to see the markers of unequal representation.

Gender bias is pervasive and persistent. Too often I’ve caught myself mid-conversation, as I’ve conjured a man into the pilot’s seat, or behind the CEO’s desk. Too often and too easily has gendered language slipped into my everyday vernacular, shaping in my mind who it is that gets to drive that fire engine or uphold our laws. Yet these are examples of the implicit made explicit, recognised and flagged. I often wonder to whom do I offer my opinions and expertise, and to who do I turn to for theirs? Whose knowledge and experience, whose authority, whose ability do I value most? And that’s not to say that to value one is to not see the value in the other, but I often wonder if this value is conferred easily, expectedly and sometimes undeservingly for some, whilst it is hard earned by others.

However, we must examine the concept of unconscious bias critically. Unconscious bias training has been held as a solution to fostering equality within organisational and institutional contexts. Yet, it has been shown that the lasting effects of this has been minimal. Furthermore, the concept of unconscious bias itself can serve to normalise stereotyping and increase gendered discrimination. When we frame these biases as inherent and held by all, it makes it permissible. When we address disparities in the workplace with unconscious bias training, our understanding of these disparities stays at the level of the individual. This absolves an organisation of enacting meaningful changes for equity at an organisational level, and instead places the blame solely at the feet of its employees. On a wider level, the linking of discrimination with mental states, removes our focus from the systemic and structural causes of discrimination which constructs the very stereotypes that fuel these biases and leads us to value some social identities over others. One alternative is to shift the focus to an understanding of how power and privilege permeates our social and professional relationships. Such an approach encourages an intersectional lens and asks us to reflect on the resources and opportunities we have, and the constraints felt by others. Ultimately, whilst awareness raising is important, a commitment to changing structures, processes and practices is essential if equity is to be realised.

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