Article main image
Dec 2, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Are you sexist? 

Ask this to a group of people and the vast majority would probably say “no” and mean it sincerely. But chances are, many of these same people would also have implicit gender bias, or gender bias that operates below their level of conscious awareness. While there has been no shortage of research confirming that implicit gender bias exists, a new study this year became a sobering reminder of just how pervasive it is when it comes to the general belief of women having less exceptional intellect than men and the consequential ramifications of this on women’s careers.

To make matters worse, the Covid-19 pandemic has set a chain of events into motion that is threatening to unravel decades of progress we have made for women in the workplace and will likely make implicit gender bias a bigger problem than it already is.  

A Persistent Problem

In the aforementioned study, researchers found that nearly 75% of men, women, and children (beginning at age 9) worldwide associated higher levels of intellectual ability with men more than they did with women. This backs up an earlier Harvard study which found that 76% of people (again, both men and women) felt that men were better suited for careers while women were better suited as homemakers.

These are disconcertingly high numbers. They also show that it’s not just men who are sexist, thus highlighting the systematic oppression of women by society as a whole. The findings also spotlight a great cognitive dissonance that many American women experience: 58.2% of married women actively participate in the workforce — yet are thought by many to be better suited for the role of homemaker, with no knowledge of  whether this actually suits them.

This dissonance does not exist for men who have different societal expectations. Regardless of whether we are talking about gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other dimension of human diversity, it’s important to remember that implicit bias is a social and psychological construct that potentially hurts everyone, not just those who are most directly and visibly impacted.

Undoing Decades of Progress    

As many have commented, the current pandemic did not create the inequities we are seeing but is shining a light on them. But that is not all it is doing. The pandemic’s ripple effects risk reversing much of the progress that women in the workplace have made.

In fact, this is already happening. According to a new report released by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely as a direct result of the pandemic. This is a staggering number, and we should all be alarmed. 

The report also revealed that mothers are three times as likely as fathers to be primarily responsible for childcare and housework during this time, and they are twice as likely to worry about having their work performance judged as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. 

Additionally, women are often the primary caregivers of aging parents, which may be more burdensome during a pandemic, when they must run additional errands to keep them safe. 

A common component of implicit gender bias is expecting women to shoulder the brunt of caregiving but holding this against them when evaluating their competence and performance at work. This is generally referred to in research as the “flexibility penalty” or the “mom penalty,” which stands in contrast to the favorable judgement given to men when they need flexibility at work due to caregiving.

It is in these moments — when women are judged harsher and punished for taking on greater childcare/home responsibilities — that we must evaluate our culture and systems and biases.

Do Implicit Bias Training and Interventions Work? 

The first step to tackling this issue must necessarily be greater awareness and education, since the challenge with implicit bias is that by definition it is unconscious. Plus, people tend to underestimate their own biases, as well as how pervasive the problem is in general.

Implicit bias training programs have been the traditional remedy in the workplace, but views on their effectiveness are mixed. While some programs have been found to reduce implicit bias, the reductions are either short-term or often do not lead to actual change in behavior. This is not at all to say that we should give up on implicit bias training and interventions. It’s simply that they should not be our only measure. 

Still, it’s one thing to be told that implicit bias exists “out there”; it is another thing to see firsthand that it exists inside oneself.

It is often easier to see the bias that exists in society and not the bias that exists within us. This is why, as part of relevant coursework, I have my students take an implicit bias test, which proves to be an eye-opening experience for many of them — men, women, and non-binary alike, including feminists. Having people take these tests is not for punitive or shaming but educational purposes. They’re often a more convincing way for individuals to recognize that they too may have implicit biases regardless of their conscious belief systems

These tests are also great places to question our socialization processes, to challenge our current systems, to prompt self-reflection, and to inspire us to do better. 

More Ways to Reduce Implicit Bias

There are two additional ways to combat implicit bias in the workplace over the long term. One is exposure to counter-stereotypic examples — that is, traits and qualities that subvert expectations and stereotypes about a certain group of people. The best medium for exposure is through interpersonal contact and interaction, especially over time.

The other way is through systemic changes made and enforced at the institutional level. Implicit biases are transmitted from the top down, from systems and groups to individuals, and these invisible barriers have supplanted the visible ones (e.g., discriminatory laws and policies) as the keepers of the status quo.

This is why I am deeply concerned about the recent finding that 1 in 4 women are considering becoming less active in their careers. A drop in the hard-earned presence of women at work, particularly in leadership positions, will mean less interpersonal contact and less counter-stereotypic visibility, thus reinforcing implicit gender bias.

We cannot afford to leave it to the discernment of individuals who may be blind to their own bias even as they exercise that very bias. We need institutional solutions, such as diversity-focused hiring and promotion practices, that explicitly fight against implicit gender bias and other implicit biases, including ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. 

While calls for diversity in hiring and promotion usually attract counter-arguments for merit-based practices, this dichotomy is a false one. The very concept of “merit,” first of all, is itself biased because it presupposes equal opportunity for everyone in accumulating that merit. 

Next, the criteria for measuring merit is deeply flawed, not least because it looks only at individual achievements instead of considering what people can bring to the table from a holistic, big-picture perspective. When adding just one woman on a board of directors can have a positive company-wide impact (with even more benefit when there are three or more women, especially including women of color), the idea of “merit” should be revised to include what diverse candidates can offer companies beyond just individual achievements. Diverse perspectives bring so much more to the table.

Understandably, the focus of most people and organizations during the first several months of the pandemic has been one of survival. But now that we have our collective heads above water, we must address the collateral damage that has occurred along the way. 

With regards to implicit gender bias and women in the workplace, no one is suggesting we have an easy job ahead of us. But when decades of fighting for gender equality are in danger of being undone in one fell swoop, the consequences that await us if we do nothing are far more daunting. 

It is time to stand up, recognize, and combat implicit gender bias. It is time to stop saying we are not sexist and prove it.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.