When I first heard about the upcoming release of “Captain Marvel”, it didn’t even occur to me that the role could equally be cast as a woman or a man. It wasn’t until I saw the visual advertising that I realised my own mind had tricked me to automatically assume the latter. To say I was shocked at myself doesn’t even begin to cut it. I was reminded just how insidious implicit bias – that is, the discrimination we don’t even know we’re doing – could be. So I decided to explore the idea further and see if it was just me that was experiencing it, and noticing it.
It wasn’t, and it’s not.
It turns out it’s a huge problem, from toy stores to the International Space Station.
The impacts of implicit gender bias
Some of the examples of direct bias are almost laughable, but the fact that marketers still think it’s okay to “gender-ize” products induces a slew of face palms. One high-profile example is LEGO bricks. Once upon a time, LEGO was a gender-neutral toy that boys and girls alike took delight in, playing and creating side by side. Ironically, this was during a time where gender roles were socially enforced. As the feminist revolution picked up speed, so too did the gendering of LEGO sets. Now, instead of stepping back and creating toys that are once more gender-neutral, and that boys and girls can play with together, LEGO is persisting with its gender-oriented product design processes and marketing, albeit under the guise of supporting more “active” female roles.
And so begins our journey of learning about gender roles and bias – through the toys we play with as children, and the relationships they foster.
Fast forward to the world of work and career opportunity, and companies are learning about biases they didn’t even realize existed. Just last month, BBC Online featured an article entitled Seven ways the world is not designed for women, in which journalist and author Caroline Perez was quoted as saying “We are so used to thinking of men as the default and women as the sort of niche – a variety of man”. Her comments were a direct reference to NASA’s recently planned all-female space walk, which had to be cancelled because there weren’t enough spacesuits that would fit the astronauts.
While the suits’ sizes are designed for an “average fit”, it turns out it’s for the average male, not the average of both males and females. The issue is more than one of simple inconvenience. Poor fitting suits lead to safety issues, discomfort and even reduced career opportunities. And unconsciously male-centric designs don’t accommodate women as well for managing bodily functions that are already complicated by zero gravity.
It’s a similar story for women in the military, according to BBC Online. Many women in combat roles admit to modifying their body armor to fit properly, “even if it meant removing protective side panels or putting foam under straps to reposition gear”.
The article goes on, citing scientific equipment, sports gear, even car crash dummies – where male-oriented design and testing processes inadvertently put women at risk. These are things we’ve all accepted as “normal” for so long that we’ve never given a second thought to the “Second Sex”. But we’re all in this together, and it’s time to take a fresh look at what “normal” really is.
What can we do to overcome it?
While gender bias is still a “thing” in the 21st century, we are at least growing our awareness more every day. In fact, our understanding of it isn’t really that new. It’s just becoming more widespread. Deloitte’s May 2018 article Designing equality talks about tackling the issue through a “design thinking” process, citing orchestra auditions as an example.
Back in the 1970s, so the story goes, fewer than 5% of musicians in US orchestras were women. Today, that figure is more than 50%. They attributed the change to the practice of blind auditions, a process orchestras began introducing in the 1970s and 80s. During the audition, a screen would separate the musician from the panel’s sight, eliminating any unconscious gender bias. They even went so far as to have the musicians remove their shoes before entering the studio, to “eliminate the distinctive sound of a woman’s footwear”.
According to the Deloitte article, a “design thinking” process can help address implicit bias, not just for orchestras, but a raft of other workplaces as well. “Design thinking,” says Deloitte, “is a creative, collaborative, and iterative problem-solving approach grounded in … the experiences and perspectives of real people to help design … a solution.” They identify five steps to taking a design thinking approach to new and existing workplace processes – from recruitment and selection, to working environments, and product design.
- Explore Discover what is happening in your business, and how your staff and customers are experiencing your products, services, your customer support, HR practices and more, by observing processes in action, conducting interviews or surveys, and analysing the data.
- Identify Engage further with your staff and customers to understand what may be driving any implicit gender bias you uncover. For instance, which processes or process steps are affecting your outcomes? Use this information to determine what outcomes you’d like to achieve.
- Ideate With the information you’ve gathered so far, brainstorm a range of possible solutions with your team on how to address any gender bias you’ve uncovered and how you might achieve the outcomes you want.
- Test Put the different solutions into practice, along with criteria and metrics to measure the impact and results you get.
- Evaluate Measure your results, and adapt as necessary. Remember, your first solution may not be the right one; or it may just need some minor adjustments. It’s an iterative process, so it’s important to keep an open mind throughout.
Using these five steps as a foundation, we’re creating a new Activated Checklist to help you review and refine your business’ processes. With this “design thinking” checklist, you can begin identifying and eliminating any implicit bias that may be holding your business back, along with any other hidden pitfalls. And it isn’t just about addressing gender bias: It’s also a powerful tool for discovering any other implicit biases that may be hiding in your business’s policies and processes. Taking advantage of different tools like this can help you evaluate and evolve your business so it’s always serving you, your clients and your staff to its absolute maximum potential.
Get the Activated Checklist
If you’d like some assistance with making your review processes that much easier, we can help. If you’d like this checklist added it to your account, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set it up for you.
Want to read more?
Here are just some of the resources I discovered in my exploration of Implicit Bias in business and the workplace.