Gender Inequality

How to end unconscious gender bias? An author explains

Gender bias: Women working on laptops.

Unconscious gender bias is impacting women in business. Image: S O C I A L . C U T/Unsplash

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Gender Inequality?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Gender Inequality is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Gender Inequality

Listen to the article

This article was first published in March 2022 and updated on 29 July, 2022.

Loading...
  • This is an edited version of an interview with Jessica Nordell for the World Economic Forum's Book Club Podcast.
  • The journalist and author discusses her new book, The End of Bias: How We Change Our Minds.
  • As part of her research, she carried out her own computer modelling to see how daily interactions add up to fewer women breaking through the glass ceiling.
  • Nordell explains the cumulative impact of gender bias at work – and ways to reduce it.

When Jessica Nordell was starting out as a journalist, she ran a little experiment. She created a new email address and signed off using just her initials, JD Nordell.

Within hours of becoming JD, an article she’d been pitching for weeks with no response from editors was accepted.

“I was pitching into the void, sending out queries to different editors. And there was radio silence. I got desperate with this one particular essay I had worked so hard on,” she says.

“So I created this gender-neutral, slightly masculine-leaning name and the piece was accepted within a couple of hours. I was really shocked, I wasn’t expecting the trick to work.”

The simple name change was a game changer for Nordell – not only did it kick-start her career in journalism, it also set her on the path to writing her book The End of Bias: How We Change Our Minds.

“My interest really started with gender bias, looking at how women are perceived, misperceived, and what the consequences are for women at work, in healthcare and different parts of life,” she says.

“As that journey progressed, it became quite clear to me that the underlying mechanism was really the same across different kinds of bias, whether we're talking about race and ethnicity, or disability, mental health, status, religion. Bias can apply to all of these social identities.”

The global gender gap

The impacts of gender bias are part of the reason it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2022.

In the labour force, gender parity stands at just 62.9%, the lowest level since the first report was compiled. Unemployment rates have increased and remain consistently higher for women. And although the share of women in leadership has been growing over time, women have not been hired at equal rates across industries.

"On average, more women have been hired into leadership in industries where women were already highly represented," the report notes.

Discover

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Here Nordell explains bias, how we can seek to reduce it, and shares what she has learned.

What is bias?

“We live in a culture and absorb information from that culture about which categories are relevant, which categories are salient and what those categories mean. And we absorb a lot of associations and stereotypes and kinds of cultural knowledge about those categories. And then when we encounter a person who fits one of those categories, all of that information stored in memory comes flooding into our minds and begins to influence the way that we interact.

“And it can be as seemingly minor as, ‘Do I respond to this email by this person or not?’, to lethal consequences in healthcare and criminal justice and policing and more. So it's these very fleeting mental glitches that have enormous consequences for people in the world.

“Over the course of this project, I was constantly wondering, ‘Where did these things come from?’ Where do these ideas of male superiority and white supremacy come from? Is it possible to trace it back to a source, a particular moment in time when these ideas were invented?’”

In the book, you outline a study on the impact of the introduction of television on a remote village. What did the researchers find?

“There was a tiny village in British Columbia, Canada, that had no television signal because of where it was positioned between mountains. It had never experienced television up until the 1970s. A sociologist found out that a new transmitter was going to be introduced and rushed to interview the inhabitants about their habits, beliefs and attitudes. And she interviewed children about what jobs they thought boys and girls should be able to grow up to have.

“Two years after TV was introduced, she and her team went back – and the findings were pretty interesting. They found that elderly people had become more isolated. There were fewer civic events in the town and children had become more aggressive. And they also found that gender stereotyping in children had increased.

“Children were now more likely to say boys and girls were more suited to different jobs, so girls to librarians and boys to doctors. And children thought that boys and girls had different temperaments: girls were nice and sweet and boys were more aggressive and forceful. It was really only one TV station, but it was enough to significantly change people and their attitudes.”

Cognitive bias codex
List of cognitive biases. Image: Visual Capitalist

You can find a higher definition version of this chart here.

You also conducted your own research into the cumulative effects of gender bias on women’s careers. What did you find?

“Bias research tends to look at a particular moment in time, and a particular situation. But I was curious to know how all of these small interactions add up. You can see, for instance, that people might prefer a man's résumé to a woman's résumé. But how do all of these interactions accumulate over time? A person has many experiences of bias over a day, over a week, over a career.

“I teamed up with a couple of computer scientists to build what's known as an agent-based model, which is a particular kind of computer simulation. We created a virtual workplace that was very simplified: people just do a project, are evaluated and are then assigned points based on whether the project was a success or a failure. And then every so often, they get promoted if they're the people who have the highest number of points at their level.

“We ran the simulation without bias. And then we introduced into the simulation a handful of really common patterns that women experience at work. There's a lot of research that shows that women's work is slightly devalued compared with men's. Research also shows that women are more penalized for failures than men and less rewarded for successes. There's evidence that women are more penalized for having personalities seen as not nurturing or not communal.

“In our simulation, when women noticed unfairness, we built into the simulation that they would complain slightly, and then they would be docked a certain number of points for not being a team player, which is something that a lot of women will recognize as a very common criticism.

“What we found was that if we just introduced a very small amount of this bias, we ended up with a very large disparity at the top level of the organization after a number of promotion cycles.

“So even with just a 3% difference in the way women and men were evaluated, we ended up with an organization that was about 87% men at the top. What this demonstrates is that just these small momentary interactions that we might call microaggressions, which we might downplay as not being very important, actually have very serious consequences over the long term.”

What about the intersections between gender and race?

“That's a really important point. The way that bias affects women is very different depending on what other identities those women inhabit. So for instance, Asian women tend to be more penalized for not acting in what's perceived as a feminine way. They are stereotyped as being more feminine. And then if they violate that stereotype, they experience a really severe backlash. Black women, for instance, experience the most amount of discrimination at work of any group.”

So how do you start to overcome bias in the workplace?

“It’s ubiquitous and harmful. But most people don't think that it really applies to them. Research shows 90% of people think they're more objective than average. I would have put myself into that category going into this project, I thought I was probably a little less biased than most people. But I found that was absolutely not the case. It's a tricky question – how do we get people on board with the fact that this needs to be changed when they might not be aware or able to accept the fact they could be contributing?

“There are a number of different things [that can help]. There are technical interventions, things like trying to become more standardized and objective with the criteria we use to make decisions. So, for example, instead of winging candidate interviews with a bunch of questions and assessing whether they’re a culture fit, actually going into an interview with a set of standardized questions designed to find out whether this person is able to perform the kind of tasks and roles you're looking for. That's one way of decreasing the likelihood of homophily, which means ‘love of the same’ – we're very likely to be drawn to people who remind us of ourselves.

“But I found those kinds of interventions are really only as powerful as the commitment of the leadership of the organization, because any technical intervention can be overridden, undermined, or the funding for that initiative can be cut. What seems to make a difference is if the people at the top of an organization believe this is a problem that is fundamental to the working of the organization. If they believe that tackling bias, creating a fair system where everyone can thrive, where everyone feels able to participate and have input and impact and feel psychologically safe is important, then these other interventions have more teeth.”

How important is it for people to see themselves represented?

“If you can see someone who is like you in a role, it’s a way that you can imagine yourself into that role. A fascinating thing happened at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] about 10 years ago, when a department made a really big effort to recruit more women. In a department of 70 people, they had one or two women. So they tried a lot of different things and ended up bringing in a cohort of six women, and then, over the years, increasing the number of women that were hired.

“The goal was to create a more inclusive environment for women, and create an environment where they can really do their research and thrive. But what they didn't expect was the impact this would have on the students. What they found was that after a certain amount of time of having these women start to be part of the mix, women students started being drawn to this department at much higher rates. You started seeing them in the hallways, you started seeing them interacting with the professors. Now I believe the proportion of women in that department is greater than the proportion of women overall at MIT.

“It's a remarkable demonstration of the impact of being able to see yourself, being able to see someone like you in a certain role. I had a conversation with an African American faculty member who is part of that department as well. He had a very similar experience when he was an undergraduate studying engineering – he didn't imagine that he could become an engineering professor. One day, he walked past a professor’s office and saw him sitting with his sneakers on the desk and listening to music that the student was familiar with. And in that moment, he thought, ‘Oh, I could be that, this could be my future too.’ So those images are incredibly important.

“One of the faculty members I talked to was describing this phenomenon in maths. There are a number of ways to prove that a mathematical object exists, but one of them is to just show an example of it – that's called an ‘existence proof’ – and she said, ‘You know, maybe I'm sort of an existence proof, maybe these students need an existence proof that this kind of life is possible.’”

What impact has the pandemic had on bias?

“We're in this moment of what people are calling the Great Resignation. One of the reasons people leave jobs is when they perceive an environment as unfair. If they experience bias in the workplace, if they see it as unfair, it decreases how engaged they are, it makes them less committed, it increases their likelihood of wanting to leave. The pandemic created this perfect storm for people to say, ‘This isn't working for me, why should I stick around in a workplace that doesn't value me?’ If employers are smart, they will see that addressing these problems at work is really important – it's really important to allow people to feel committed and to actually want to stay in these environments.”

How much did writing the book teach you about yourself?

“I started writing this book thinking that I was writing a pure science book. That I was going to look at the research, use all my powers of scientific thinking and analysis to look at what worked, and then bring it to as many people as possible and put a dent in this problem.

“I did not expect it to affect me as deeply as it did. I didn't see how deeply I had internalized these biases, particularly sexism. I'm a very vocal feminist, I have no problem speaking up, I feel very confident as a woman. And yet I found that the more deeply I investigated the origin of patriarchal ideas, I could see the ways they had affected how I thought about myself, and the kinds of assumptions I made about other women. And that was a spiritually devastating realization.

“But seeing what's happening in your own mind is the first step of having agency, because when I was able to see how these ideas had really infected me, then I was able to systematically question them and hold them up to the light. The way I had internalized ideas about white supremacy and racial hierarchy was also very shocking to me, in a similar way to how I thought about sexism. As I really thought about it, as I really investigated, I saw that I had been absolutely affected and infected by these ideas as well.

“The process of really looking deeply, analyzing, questioning and then ultimately choosing a different way changed my life. It affected the way that I was able to relate to others and to myself – and the way I was able to see the world. In a lot of ways, writing this book was a life-changing experience. And I hope that readers can use the book as a step in their own journey, wherever they are in their own journey, of tackling these issues.”

Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

4:31

Jude Kelly has led a festival celebrating women for 14 years. Here's what she has learned

Morgan Camp

April 9, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum