It is March 8! That means it is International Women’s Day again. The one day a year, companies and organizations across the world and industries post about female empowerment on social media. The one day a year, you can easily find an article with an inspiring and exceptional woman in a newspaper. It is not unusual to find a webinar with an all-female panel on March 8 (I am sitting in one!). The entertainment on my flight to San Francisco earlier this week even had a temporary movie category for International Women’s Day. What a treat!
You might hear the skepticism through my writing… While it is somewhat surreal that we still need a Women’s Day anno 2023, it is not the source of my sarcastic tone. It is a proverbial eye-roll at the disconnect between what is happening in society and what the day stands for. Sometimes it feels like we are moving in the opposite direction. The attention companies and organizations are giving to the matter on March 8 is not necessarily disingenuous – most companies do care about women and equal opportunities. To some level. For a sizeable amount of companies that level is called marketing. For others, it is called HR/hiring. And then some truly care. It is hard to see the difference sometimes. It is hard to even know the difference. Or what truly caring means. When it comes to the existing gender inequality, the most obvious breaches are called out: discrimination, violence, intimidation, assault, etc. A few big scandals have made those in the population who were lucky enough to never experience any of it themselves or see it in their immediate surroundings, aware. The #metoo movement educated the blissfully unaware amongst us about these issues and we collectively condemned the misconduct. However, the crimes listed above are really the tip of the iceberg. Eliminating them is extremely important, but not enough to get a sliver of equality.
Next on the chopping block to weed out gender inequality is bias. Bias is everywhere. Whoever claims to be free of it needs to do some introspection. Bias is rooted in the stereotypes we grow up with. It is often hiding in plain sight and labeled as culture, tradition, or even humor. It is why little girls hear they are sweet and pretty, and little boys are called strong and energetic. It is why there is usually only a diaper changing table in the women’s public restroom and not in the men’s. Gender bias is not just committed by men towards women, or by everyone towards women. Men are victims of bias as well. Whether it is to be expected to make more money than your wife or to not show your emotions, it is what keeps us in gender roles and fundamentally unequal.
When it comes to bias, the key is awareness. And as much as you or I may feel we are being great allies, we are only at the beginning. Recent research published in Harvard Business Review showed that noticing something isn’t right, seems to be a lot harder than we think. When a woman gets interrupted or spoken over by a man, women notice it 4.6 times more than men do. Even the person him/herself may not notice. I have become slightly more aware (and vocal) about it since spending a lot of time in the more sensitized California (compared to Belgium), but I cringe when I think of everything I let slide as a student, researcher, and young entrepreneur. During a discussion a few weeks ago, I heard a female engineer admit that at first, she thought she hadn’t experienced bias during her career until her husband reminded her of some of the comments she had vented about at home. We get used to the bias because we experience it and see it around us all the time. It is hiding in plain sight.
If we’re not noticing it, is it really a problem? Can’t we just let it slide? The thing is, we can’t. Because as much as it is going on underneath or on the surface, it slowly builds up in the background. Like a bucket of water being filled, drop by drop, until it overflows. Bias is one of the main reasons women miss promotions. In tech 39% of women reported gender bias as the reason to question their career prospects. Women quit a career in tech at a 46% higher rate than men. Everyone struggling to find work-life balance is also fighting the bias wave in a way. Bias can feel like hearing the same joke again and again. The first few times (years) you ignore it, but when it happens over and over, it starts irritating you until you can’t stand it anymore.
So on this International Women’s Day, I would like to say: Please don’t send me messages today (or any other day) to tell me you think female empowerment is great. Or that women are great and we need women. (Believe me, I get a lot of messages like that). As well-intended as they may be, those messages don’t help me or anyone else – except for maybe how the people sending them feel about themselves and their contribution to ‘support’ women. Last year, I wrote about how I was getting tired myself of dealing with bias and harassment, and how I understood why women left tech/the workforce. This year, I can confirm that I am still here – dealing with it. And doing my part in helping others to deal with it. But what I would really like, is not to have to deal with bias anymore… Not by next International Women’s Day, but as soon as possible. I know that is a tall order… A difficult request. But what can I say – I am a businesswoman. (And gender bias tells me that means I am demanding and difficult ;).)