Internalised sexism: an unconscious bias that is kept out of the spotlight
There’s been much discussion of late about the ways in which women have been insulted or marginalised by their male counterparts in the working world due to biases around gender.
The most recent example hitting the headlines is over the now infamous Google memo, in which a senior employee at the company claimed that women were less biologically capable than men when it came to operating within the tech industry.
We have also seen an adverse range of reactions to the stark gender pay gap that the BBC revealed to the public in July, and even reports of highly sexist commentary being attributed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
These examples are all abhorrent, and are all symptoms of a myriad of gender-related issues that we have not yet resolved in the UK.
Although these outdated attitudes must be addressed, there is another side to the story that often goes ignored. It is best exemplified by recent Australian research, which suggests that some women adopt a sexist worldview as it is one that best serves them.
Women have been socialised in the same way as men, and thus have been influenced by society to harbour many of the same biases.
Although somewhat taboo, the issue raised by this research touches upon a little known area of workplace gender bias that we don’t often explore when discussing gender issues in the public spotlight: internalised sexism.
If our schemes to move women up talent pipelines and into industries where they are under-represented are so successful, and we continue to place more and more women in senior positions each year, why are we continuously failing to meet targets and claiming that the number of women in high level roles is insufficient?
We can’t take our eye off the ball
There’s a belief held by many that we can forget about issues around gender once we get ‘enough’ women into senior roles. This is where Tesco Chairman John Allen was coming from earlier this year when he claimed that it was “an excellent time for people to be female” – he believes that by consistently filling our boardrooms with women, we will turn the tables and begin to exclude all other groups.
However, this is never the reality. All human beings, no matter what gender identity they possess, are part of the problem when it comes to gender bias. As soon as we stop paying attention and taking precise measures to generate equality, we start to go backwards.
I’ve witnessed these attitudes causing problems in organisations before. Previously, I worked with a business who claimed they had more women in their senior leadership roles than ever before. They were thrilled and excited about this progress – quite rightly so – and the way in which they’d managed to create gender parity within their business.
As a result of this, the company removed their focus from promoting female leadership and progression, believing it would occur naturally due to increased female representation at the top level.
Talking to men about issues around feminism – which is ultimately an egalitarian movement – only addresses half of the problem instead of the whole thing.
What they actually found in reality a few years later was that the proportion of women had actually diminished instead of grown further. This was because the women they had placed in senior roles were appointing just as many men into senior roles as their male counterparts had been doing before them.
This all comes down to something we call internalised sexism. Women, understandably, are more often aware of gender issues. This is because most have, unfortunately, experienced some kind of discrimination or bias in their lifetime relating to their gender.
Continuously focusing on these personal experiences can overshadow the fact that women have been socialised in the same way as men, and thus have been influenced by society to harbour many of the same biases.
As a result, we can lose our way on the path to gender parity, as we often forget to address bias as something that is inherent in all human beings – rather than simply present in those who are at the ‘top of the chain’ and somewhat exempt from negative stereotyping.
It may seem somewhat ridiculous that one of the few things that unifies us as people is our ability to stereotype and differentiate ourselves from each other with an ‘us’ and ‘them’ ethos. Indeed it is an uncomfortable reality, but we cannot leave it unaddressed.
Creating a solution for this problem
Gender issues and discussions around them largely attract and interest women: I know this to be true from my conferences and talks. I have been told during these talks, very regularly in fact, that I am talking to the wrong people.
An audience member will often say that it is men who should be addressed. They are right, but they are also missing a key part of the fight for equality: both sexes hold biases about gender, and women are not exempt from being biased towards others and themselves.
It should be clear that no one is blaming anyone here. This is simply an issue that stems from the way we are socialised and what we learn from the gender stereotypes we often find ourselves presented with – even today. We must work together to acknowledge that bias is a part of the problem for both genders.
Talking to men about issues around feminism – which is ultimately an egalitarian movement – only addresses half of the problem instead of the whole thing. If we are to achieve gender equality, we must work at it from both sides, and recognise that biases are not just held by those who are seen as ‘oppressors’.
Even those people who consider themselves as the ‘oppressed’ are all capable of, and often guilty of, propagating unconscious bias, whether they are aware of it or not, and we must factor this into our diversity initiatives if we are to exceed in creating a fair system for everyone.
You might also be interested in
Diversity, assessment and development specialist Professor Binna Kandola is a Business Psychologist, Senior Partner and co-founder of Pearn Kandola, where in the last thirty years, he has worked on a wide variety of projects for public and private sector clients both in the UK and overseas.
As well as leading the practice, Binna is...