RIDDLED WITH BIAS: How unconscious gender bias drives inequalities

March 9, 2021

That some 70% of people assumed the CEO in our story was a man suggests that such bias runs deep.

Question for you.

There’s a family, one member falls sick with COVID-19. It is left to another member of the family to take care of that person—even as they have to negotiate a big new contract for their company.

Who is that person?

We at UNDP in Egypt put this riddle to 13 different people, male and female, ages 12-60. The occasion is International Women’s Day, 8 March, which this year UNDP is marking with the theme, “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 World.”

70 percent of them said it was a man—the father or an adult son. Only a man, they said, was likely to be in such a job role.

  • Insurance company director Noeman Ashour imagined the character to be a young female. “She takes care of the family and the person who has COVID-19, and she works at the company,” he says. He felt, however, that she was “not the CEO of the company but only works for it.”
  • “It’s definitely the father of the family,” says Dr. Aya Yassin, Assistant Professor of Radiology. “My impression is that it’s the mother who is sick with COVID19, and the father is the one taking care of the family and has a company. Everything usually starts to fall apart in the family when the mother is ill.”
  • High school student Hana Ibrahim came to the same conclusion, believing that the mother is sick, and the father is stepping in whilst continuing to build his company.

Why did they feel that way? People we talked with attribute their answers to traditional views on the roles of women as caretakers and men as breadwinners. If a father was taking care of the family, then it would be only to step in for a sick wife and mother.

Unconscious bias

As soon as we meet someone, we may make judgements about them based on their age, accent, weight, gender, race, or other characteristics. Much of the time we’re not even aware of it.

That some 70% of people assumed the CEO in our story was a man suggests that such bias runs deep. Indeed, we might all be riddled with unconscious bias, especially towards women in the workplace and in leadership positions.

For Dr. Renee Navarro of the University of California in San Francisco, “Unconscious bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Its impact is devastating.

The fact that men are generally perceived as better leaders, even by women, reinforces the biases that have implications for the status of women in the workplace and positions of power. “I don’t know why I didn’t see myself in that story” says CEO and university lecturer, Yassmine Hassan. “I just felt that it would be the father in the family.”

Academic studies compiled by researchers at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School showed that the salaries of blonde women were 7% higher than those of brunettes or redheads, that 'mature-faced' people had a distinct career advantage over 'baby-faced' people, and that both male and female scientists were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women.

Despite the remarkable increase in women entering the global workforce, women are still underrepresented in positions of responsibility, power, and leadership. Data from UN Women shows that 119 countries have never had a women leader. In addition, data from 133 countries shows that women constitute 2.18 million (36%) of elected members in local deliberative bodies, and only 14 countries have achieved 50% or more women in cabinets.

Out of all interviewees, the quickest to answer was 13-year-old Jana Rabie. With no hesitation she answered, “It’s the mother.” Jana had a role model. “I see my mother who has worked all her life and is very successful but also takes care of me and my family,” she says. “This is what I am used to at home.”

Jana aspires to own a company one day while following her dream of singing on the side.

If bias is learned—can it be unlearned?

Change is happening, but conscious and consistent effort is needed.  

In Egypt, a new law says that at least one out of ten members of the Senate must be women, and the constitution has been amended to require that at least 25 percent of members of the House of Representatives be women.

Direct government interventions ensure the increased participation of women in public life, improves diversity in the workplace, and works to close the gender gap, but a whole-of-society approach is also needed to make a deeper impact. Unconscious biases can be untangled through public education and open community dialogue.  

The malleability of these biases was apparent with interviewee Khadijah Muhammad, who was quick to believe the character was the father but changed her answer halfway through the discussion. “I jumped to the conclusion that it was a man, because that is what we were told growing up!” But, thinking through it, “I changed my answer.”

Through education and community dialogue, we might all change our “answers” on unconscious bias.

Learn more about how women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life are essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.