women's boots

The unconscious bias that leads to invisible women

My safety boots come out for an airing every so often; they’re very comfortable.  They’ve seen the Glasgow train line at 3 in the morning; more warehouses than I care to remember, and they’ve been restoring our home too.

They’re not pink.  They don’t have a daft name like “Barbie”. And, most importantly, they fit.

I don’t think about them from one month to the next, because why should I have to?

And then I read about the research Caroline Criado Perez has carried out for her latest book Invisible Women.  She talks in this article about a world which is literally designed for the average man, from crash test dummies to the size of your phone.

I first met Caroline when my daughter and I supported her protest outside the Bank of England, to get a woman (apart from the Queen) back onto a UK banknote.

My proudest moment was suggesting we dress as our heroines: I went as Gertrude Jekyll (Heritage England reckons day visits to famous gardens contributes around £5bn annually to UK coffers).  Caroline was there as scientist Rosalind Franklin.

Don’t get me started on the size of gardening equipment: spade sizes were standardised around the 1900s – to suit shorter male miners.  Now we have ladies’ garden tools: lighter and ineffectual.

I’m lucky to be able to forget about the unconscious bias that affects women most days; I’m taller than average and so fit into many designed-for-men situations. I also get to adjust the office heating at my leisure.

From this position of privilege, what can I contribute?

The work on how to reduce unconscious bias is relevant here.

The challenge is that many people – women and men – don’t realise that 50% of the world’s population may be excluded because of design, engineering and construction flaws geared towards the masculine body.

Recent studies indicate that this bias may be the only reason women are held back in the workplace.  Harvard Business Review concluded that “Women are underrepresented in the C-suitereceive lower salaries, and are less likely to receive a critical first promotion to manager than men.[i]”  Their conclusion? “Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

I welcome Caroline’s book, because while it may inflame a few delicate male sensitivities, it’s a salutary reminder that much of this imbalance is unintended.  Outdated. Unconscious.

There are plenty of men aghast at the imbalance; happy to support ways to enable better access.

Women pay the same for their theatre or cinema tickets as men, yet have to spend more time queuing to use the facilities because of (unconscious) poor design.

I once attended a talk where the panel included Dame Katherine Whitehorn, who told us about an airport where she was invited to advise on lift facilities to the departure lounge.

“Great” was her comment when inspecting the lift taking prams, pushchairs and wheelchairs up several levels; “But where’s the lift to take them down when they return?”

Stakeholder consultation is a great way to overcome unconscious bias.

Just ask people.

Make the unconscious, conscious.

But here’s the secret: listen to what they say, and act on it.

I once organised age-relevant building design consultation events; ostensibly to support older people in their homes and the workplace.  What the industry discovered, to no woman’s surprise, was that inclusive design benefits everyone.

This matters to the world of work in many walks of life; not just the airline or construction industries.

When we listen to our employees, we discover the visible and invisible barriers keeping women out of certain sectors and industries.  Whether it’s the warmth of the office, the position of seatbelts, accelerator or brakes in a car, or the PPE that fits properly, some of these issues needs an international, collective response, and some require minor adjustments.

[i] A Study Used Sensors to Show That Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work, by Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, Ben Waber, Harvard Business Review, October 23, 2017 Updated October 26, 2017.

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About Helen

Helen is a qualified Leadership Coach and Chartered Marketer - the CEO of a leadership development consultancy operating globally and offering research, consulting, training and leadership coaching services. "Growing leaders using inspirational and practical tools"

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