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08 March 2022

International Women’s Day: How bias affects women at work – and how we can break out of it

08 March 2022

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day (internationalwomensday.com) is bias – encouraging us to think about how conscious and unconscious bias affects women at home and at work.

“There is lots of evidence societies that are more equal are better for men and women,” says Claire Reindorp, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust (youngwomenstrust.org). “That’s the really important thing here – the value of breaking the bias isn’t just for women” – it could potentially benefit everyone.

If we want to stop the cycle of bias against women, we need to know what it looks like – and how damaging it can be…

How bias can affect women

The Young Women’s Trust focuses on “the unconscious bias and discrimination that young women face outside the workplace, getting into work, and within work”, explains Reindorp.

“For us, all those different kinds of discrimination ultimately lead to a financial penalty.”

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the gender pay gap in April 2021 for all employees (including full and part-time workers) was 15.4% (it was 7.9% for full-timers). The ONS also found the pay gap got worse for age groups over 40. Under 40, the pay gap for full-time employees was around 3% or less – but it stood at 12% for those who were older.

What bias might look like

Some examples of bias in the workplace are more obvious – for example, passing over qualified women for promotions or raises because they’re pregnant, or men interrupting women in meetings. For Reindorp, interrupting – something she reckons can affect women no matter their seniority – signals women are “less worth listening to” than their male counterparts.

“But it’s this unconscious bias that is actually very insidious, and it seeps out throughout society,” suggests Reindorp. “It means young women are not getting into work, they’re not progressing and being promoted in the same way as their male peers, they’re being segregated into different bits of the economy – they’re working in different sectors and not going into science and technology, they’re going into retail and hospitality.

“Caring roles have different levels of pay, different levels of status. That sorting is happening, that stereotyping is happening really young – in schools and in the home – and goes up through the age ranges.”

From a young age, this unconscious bias might look like girls being encouraged to play with dolls and kitchen toys, whereas boys are given trucks and science sets. And in the workplace, examples of unconscious bias might be expecting the women to fulfil the ‘homely’ task – such as making tea for everyone, or organising birthday cakes (“I think every woman in the land probably has an example of being in the workplace and seen as the person who’s more likely to be the administrator, or being patronised,” adds Reindorp).

But the structures need to change, too

Women still suffer from the gender pay gap (Alamy/PA)

While attitudes towards women need to change (what Reindorp refers to as the “mental structures”), she also says the structures of society will also play a major part in breaking the bias.

She suggests the system we live in is limiting women’s “ability to succeed, through things like a lack of childcare, and a lack of access to flexible work”.

Reindorp adds: “You want women to ‘lean in’, but they ought to lean into a culture that takes them seriously, that enables them to get into the workplace in the first place, that gives them childcare that’s not going to cost them more than their rent or their mortgage.”

What can be done to break the bias?

Increased flexible working might help women juggle their childcare responsibilities more effectively (Alamy/PA)

For Reindorp, attitudes need to change – but two big structural shifts could have a big impact. “Ending salary history and [offering fully] flexible working are some of the key tools we can use to break the bias, to enable women to get into the workplace, and really achieve all they’re capable of within it,” she says.

Flexible working might help women “manage their childcare responsibilities, their caring responsibilities and the job” – and hopefully also allow men to do the same if the option is there.

Reindorp continues: “We’ve been campaigning to stop the practice of asking for people’s salary history, because that pay gap is perpetuated by asking women what they used to be on” – potentially leading to a constant cycle of women being paid less than men.

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