Biases, and how they punch holes in women’s struggle for equity

It is time to reimagine careers such that they are inclusive at their very core, not just sprinkled with incentives on the outside to appear inclusive, say Sarah Iqbal* and Banya Kar*.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2021.39 Published online 15 March 2021

Gender stereotypes trigger biases that perpetuate discriminatory mindsets and behaviours.
To say that gender discrimination and stereotyping is commonplace in India is like saying the sky is blue (not a good simile for Delhi though). It is painfully ubiquitous — so much so that it keeps many women in our workforce awake at night. 

Sample some of the assaults they have to navigate — 'Dear Sir’ emails (and the surprise when the 'Dr’ turns out to be a woman in person), questions about plans to ‘start a family’ at job interviews and appraisals, labels (‘bossy’ if assertive, 'too soft’ if polite, ‘too difficult’ if brave), dress codes to ‘protect’ them, induced guilt trips if they are unable to give time to family and gender norms that assign ‘appropriateness’ to their actions.

It doesn’t need reiteration that people are treated differently in most societies simply because they are male or female, and not on the basis of their capabilities. While bias against women is talked about more, and girls and women suffer most from society-prescribed gender norms, boys and men also deal with masculinity norms. Gender stereotypes trigger biases that perpetuate discriminatory mindsets and behaviours. Recall the time you picked up a pink dress for a little girl and a set of cars for a boy? Or much worse, remember when as a woman your paycheck was much less than your male colleagues’ doing the exact same work?

Such bias-triggered discrimination takes many forms — from freedoms restricted by violence or harassment to truncated opportunities. Besides this, unconscious (and many times unintentional) biases make hurtful experiences for women making millions feel excluded, uncomfortable and threatened, many times infringing upon their basic human rights. Sadly, we all exhibit gender bias in varying severity, knowingly or unknowingly. We have even taught our computers to exhibit biases — after all artificial intelligence is human-made.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released new findings in 2020 from 80 countries as part of its Gender Social Norms Index. The report revealed that 90 per cent of men and women hold some sort of bias against women. We may have covered some ground by way of gender equality (or its newer credo ‘equity’), but Pedro Conceição, head of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office captures the sign of our times when he says, “Today, the fight about gender equality is a story of bias and prejudices.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation. Men and women have been affected unequally. Unsurprisingly, the toll on women has been greater. Women are now dealing with more domestic abuse, significantly more domestic work and unpaid care, loss of jobs, higher stress and mental health challenges. Even before the pandemic, women spent three times more hours on unpaid domestic work and care than men. According to UN Women, 25 years of efforts to achieve gender equality may be wiped out by the pandemic. We stand at a crossroad from where we can either go back to a time when gender stereotypes were accepted without batting an eyelid or we can build a better future for women, girls and everyone.

Our biased brains

Unconscious or implicit biases are deviations from rational thought or judgement. They influence our daily actions and have real-world impacts. We develop these biases early in life, largely influenced by our social and cultural contexts. For example, babies can distinguish faces of their own racial community better than that of other communities — a result of what they see most often affecting their perceptional development. These implicit biases, however, are not hardwired in our brains and can be changed through awareness.

But why have biases at all? The human brain tends to slot things into categories to make sense of the continuous, complex and diverse information it receives. Implicit bias is a mental shortcut that helps the brain make quick and efficient decisions, particularly when complete information is absent. It also helps deal with uncomfortable or unwelcome situations or facts that challenge our existing beliefs.

This otherwise useful feature of our brain may lead to irrational and discriminatory behaviours and assumptions, particularly under stressful or threatening circumstances. The brain automatically categorizes people as good or bad and situations as safe or unsafe on the basis of familiarity. A 2010 Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Bollywood movie made a powerful statement on biases with: “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist”. The more recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests spotlighted the dire impacts of implicit bias and resulting perceptions and discrimination.

In her book ‘Biased’ social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt writes, “Whether bad or good, whether justified or unjustified, our beliefs and attitudes can become so strongly associated with the category that they are automatically triggered, affecting our behavior and decision-making.” For example, fields like physics, mathematics or engineering are male dominated since men are thought to be good at 'hard’ sciences and women at 'soft’ sciences. Similarly, there are fewer women in our professional workforce because of the perception that family care is women’s domain as they are better caregivers.

While there are laws and policies in place to deal with explicit or conscious prejudices, tackling biases that one is not even aware of could be rather challenging.

Scientific research is mandated to be objective, rational and free of biases. However, despite these checks, science does falter occasionally since it is a human endeavour and scientists are humans. Angela Saini's book ‘Inferior’ scrutinises such in-built socio-cultural biases in scientific research that reinforce gender stereotypes and justify the existence of patriarchal systems. Analysing research,,Saini observes that biological differences notwithstanding, women by no means are biologically or psychologically inferior to men. She thrashes the long-held narrative ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ with, “There is no biological commandment that says women are natural homemakers and unnatural hunters, or that hands-on fathers are breaking some eternal code of the sexes.”  It’s time we moved on from using biology as an excuse and focused on improving social and political systems that ensure dignity and rights for everyone.

Tackling biases

Gender bias and discrimination is a global problem needs tailored local solutions. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) on gender equality directly addresses this problem. International bodies and governments are implementing legislations and fiscal measures to address this challenge. 

For example, the Singapore government introduced various measures to address gender gap that led to doubling of women’s participation in the labour force from 28 per cent in 1970 to 58 per cent in 2016. However, the success of government-led interventions can only be sustained with wholehearted public participation. Paternity leave in Japan is a case in point. On record, Japan has a very generous paternity leave policy — men can take up to one year of paid leave. However, the participation rate is just above 6 per cent, with some claiming that dads are penalised for availing this leave. The phenomenon is so uncommon in the country that a Japanese politician’s announcement to go on paternity leave triggered a social media frenzy. 

India’s new Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy 2020 makes a welcome move in this direction calling for inclusion of women and the LGBTQI community in conversations around gender equity. The policy recognises the importance of equity and inclusion in the STI ecosystem and the need to promote women scientists in leadership roles. This is encouraging in spirit, though its proper implementation will define its success.

There is no easy solution to the problem of gender bias and discriminatory attitudes at a macro-level. However, at the micro-level, for instance at work or at home, alogside inclusive policies, simple measures like enforcing gender inclusive language (e. g. humankind not mankind) and nuanced gender-sensitisation can slowly help people overcome biases and alter behaviour.

Recent research shows that gender bias may still persist in fields that have a good representation of women. People who think the biases no longer exist may actually perpetuate them. Studies also suggest that bias-denial is more evident in the scientific and medical professions, whose hallmark, ironically, is objectivity. Interestingly, those who perceive themselves to be objective, show more gender bias (“I think it, therefore it’s true”). Efforts only aimed at increasing women in the workforce, therefore, may not solve the problem of gender inequality. Sustained actions are needed to cleanse societies of gender and cultural biases and create diverse and fair work environments.

“Most career paths have been developed with men’s lives in mind and have embedded in them the assumption that the individual can devote almost all their time to work because someone — usually a nonworking wife — is looking after everything else,” said former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. It is also time we reimagined careers and jobs such that they are inclusive at their very core, not just sprinkled with incentives on the outside to appear inclusive.

Diverse knowledge, perspectives and experiences inspire better ideas, foster vibrant collaborations, and drive closer-to-life solutions. In these times of disruption, it is much more important to prioritise diversity and inclusion to create communities and not workforces, to lay the foundation for a better working world.

Acknowledging that systemic and structural inequities exist, and that deep-rooted prejudices stand in the way of finding solutions, will be critical first steps in addressing the elephant in the room. Not recognising prejudices and their widespread effects will continue to keep us unprepared to challenge discrimination.

During the Women's History Month, it is time for stories of action and change — moving beyond feel-good stories of women on a day or month of the year. It is time to find the courage to challenge biases and drive positive conversations to build an equal and fair world.

(*The authors are from the science funding charity DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. Their views are personal.)