How unconscious bias is preventing women from reaching the top

But can women really lead? 

I was asked this question by a very close male friend of mine. To be frank I was quite shocked to hear such a question in 2016. Before answering I took a moment to reflect on what could possibly be the background of this question. I came to the conclusion that it was not such an odd question after all, because “what you see is all there is”. There are still very few female leaders, and society still considers leadership as something that belongs to men because of the simple fact that there are not many women in top positions.  

Unconscious bias

The culture within the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is so progressive to an extent that I sometimes find it hard to adjust my frame of mind to understand and relate to the unconscious bias held by the vast majority of people towards the advancement of women to top positions. By definition we all have certain biases; the important factor is what you do once you become aware of it. Being mindful of my biases has enabled me to change my frame of mind, which in turn has allowed me in this context to not even question the ability of women to become leaders. Yes, we have been conditioned from a very young age to believe that certain roles are gender specific, and yes it takes psychological discipline to not fall into a pattern that you have been accustomed to the majority of your life.

Digging deep into your unconscious thoughts and resetting the old to allow in the new will give you such a refreshing approach to the endless possibilities out there for women in this world.  I must add that it’s not only men who are biased against women, women are also biased against women, and  as  my dear colleague and Director of ECWO, Professor Dianne Bevelander always says: “Once you see it, you cannot undo it,” which is very true. I will never look at the simplest things the same way I did before I worked at ECWO. A recent example: sitting in my garden, I overheard my neighbour speaking to her three-year-old daughter. It was a normal conversation that I would not even have paid attention to before. The daughter’s birthday was just around the corner, so they were discussing birthday ideas. The mom came up with a variety of themes for her daughter’s party, mainly Disney princess themes. The daughter was not very amused – she wanted a ‘Cars’ theme. My neighbour reacted instantly, asking why she wanted cars, because ‘that is for boys’. But I think she was caught off guard by her own reaction because she continued: “but if cars is really what you want, then we shall go for it.”

It really doesn’t sound like a major issue, but this simple example demonstrates at what early age girls are put into certain roles. So if your frame of mind is set to believe that a little girl cannot play with cars, how can you possibly imagine a woman as an impactful CEO of a company in today’s society, when there are only very few of them?

Progressive adjective | pro·gres·sive  |\prə-ˈgre-siv\

Someone with modern ideas who wants to change things

Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Now that I am mindful of these biases, I constantly challenge myself to avoid falling into the comfortable but mistaken pattern that I was used to in the past. Reading, watching movies, seeing advertisements, and hearing the tone of language towards men and towards women will always make me question whether the message is contributing to changing the gender paradigm or not. If it doesn’t, I always try to find ways within my power to make a difference; sometimes just addressing the issue is sufficient to trigger a change.

How does ECWO tackle this?

During ECWO’s training programmes, participants are required to be mentally alert at all times because at some point they will be challenged on their assumptions. And they might also feel a bit out of their comfort zone – but feeling uncomfortable is necessary in order to unlearn conditioned thoughts. ECWO’s programmes are designed to confront participants with their own biases, and at the same time allow them to reflect on these biases in a safe environment.

ECWO believes that women have the power to make an impact and that women can lead. Unfortunately, the higher women get on the corporate ladder the more the environment is designed to cater to the advancement of male employees – it’s not balanced. In order to navigate as a woman in such environments we transfer research based knowledge to our participants in the areas of; leadership, communication, negotiation, networking and courageous conversations, so they have the right tools to advance within their organisations. We do not train our participants on how to become more male, in the contrary, we empower female participants to use their female strengths while acknowledging how they are perceived.

In addition to transmitting this knowledge to participants, we also encourage them to spread the word and empower others with this new knowledge. What you see is all there is; ECWO is determined to make a difference in what you see at the top level of companies. If you are interested in learning more about Women in Leadership, gender biases and more in this area, join one of our programmes.

Anita Otchere, MSc

Anita Otchere started working at ECWO as a project manager in 2015. Anita has a passion for gender equality and seizes every opportunity she gets to make a difference. She completed her master in marketing management in Barcelona in 2014, which was partly funded through a scholarship which she acquired for her dedication to encourage female teenagers to be ambitious and follow their dreams. Anita has various roles within ECWO; she is mainly in charge of marketing, and also involved in research. She is dedicated to make a significant contribution to changing the gender paradigm, on a professional and personal level.

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