For those who do not know, International Women’s Day is recognized annually on March 8th. The purpose of this day is to celebrate the many accomplishments of women and strive toward gender equality in all aspects of life.
This year, I’ve noticed major companies with commercials on television announcing that they are celebrating International Women’s Day all month. My initial thought was “Hey, that’s cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen commercials like this in past years.” Then my snarky personality took over and I thought “Having an ad is one thing, actually doing something (or lots of somethings) to achieve gender equality is something entirely different. Wonder if they are doing anything at all.” Then, the self-reflective side of me popped up and asked “What are you doing? Yeah, you are a female founder of a company, but so what, it takes much more than that.”
Before I answer that last question, let’s first consider this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, #BreakTheBias. We are encouraged to imagine a gender equal world, free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination; that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive; a world in which difference is valued and celebrated.
To #BreaktheBias, we first need to know what that is. So, some definitions.
- Bias: According to the Cambridge Dictionary, bias is the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way because of personal opinions that influence your judgment. There are different kinds of bias, such as political bias, racial bias, gender bias, and so on.
- Gender Bias: Again, relying on the Cambridge Dictionary, gender bias is an unfair difference in the way women and men are treated.
I think it is very important to remember that gender bias applies to both males and females. Men do experience gender bias. For example, many people still refer to “male nurses” and “male teachers” with “nurse” and “teacher” automatically equated to females.
That said, it is still a man’s world, where our environment, jobs, and tools are designed and optimized for men. Here, the default paradigm is male, and despite significant progress, the decision-makers are male. Consequently, women suffer significant detriment because of a lack of equality fueled by bias. Here are just a few examples. Globally
- 60% of the chronically hungry people in the world are women and girls,
- Women have less access to education, resulting in women making up almost 600 million of the 800 million people with no or low literacy.
- Women still make less money than men do for the same or similar employment
- More men are in positions of decision-making and leadership than women
Gender bias has led to deeply rooted systemic policies and practices at all levels of government and enterprise that have resulted in a gender gap that, according to the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report
issued by the World Economic Forum, will take more than 135 years to close if we continue on the same trajectory we are on now.
The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing when it is happening. Let’s be clear: We all have biases
. There are two forms of bias that we should identify:
- Explicit or Conscious Bias: This is the easy one to recognize. Why? Well because we know when it is happening. “In the case of explicit or conscious [bias], the person is very clear about [their] feelings and attitudes, and related behaviors are conducted with intent.” Here’s an example. I am acutely aware that I have an explicit bias for female health care providers. Since I was able to select my own health care providers, I have always chosen female providers. My list of reasons is long. But at the top of the list is that as a fellow female, they are going to relate to my experiences more than a man can.
Imagine my dismay when I was pregnant and learned that OB practices generally have a policy that you must see all their providers throughout your pregnancy, on the rationale that when you deliver, you won’t know who is on call and will attend you. As someone who had a scheduled c-section, I had many things to say about this. But the practice stood by its policy, and logically, I understand why. (Begrudgingly.) There was one male physician in the practice. There was nothing he could do that would make me think he could relate to my experience or have any idea what was going on with me. Which means I didn’t give what he said and recommended the same credence I gave the female providers.
- Implicit or Unconscious Bias: This is the hard one. Why? Because, as the term implies, we don’t know it is happening. “Implicit or unconscious bias operates outside of the person’s awareness and can be in direct contradiction to a person’s espoused beliefs and values.” This kind of bias is the most problematic because it may influence our behavior in ways that we are unaware of and could influence behavior in a way that is directly contrary to what we say we believe. Here’s an example. Anyone who knows me, knows that I believe firmly in the power of women. Women’s equality is a driver in all I do.
I am also a woman in my mid-40s who was raised by and influenced by women who chuckled when I said, as a child of 5, that I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer when I grew up. Nonetheless, a couple years ago, sitting in the audience at a conference where a speaker was discussing unconscious bias and to demonstrate her point, she had us all close our eyes and as she said the names of professions were to note the image that came immediately to mind. When she said doctor, what did I see in my mind? A man in a white lab coat. Yep. Me too.
As I said above, we all have biases. Why? Well because that is just how our brains are wired (and partly because of how we are socialized). I’m not at all qualified to try to explain this, so instead I provide a great resource here: It’s How We are Wired.
So, if we are all wired this way, does that mean we are helpless to stop or prevent biases or, at least, to keep them from having the terrible influences they can have?
Good news, no! It starts, of course, with acknowledging the existence of the problem. We all then need to take individual responsibility for identifying and addressing our own biases. There are tools available to help with that, such as an Implicit Association Test
. Engaging in self-reflection and in training and education on this issue can help to “rewire” our brains. And, importantly, we must achieve and consistently maintain cultural and linguistic competence
in all aspects of our lives.
And now I’ll return to the question I asked myself: What am I doing as a business owner, and how am I supporting my team at Atrómitos, to #BreaktheBias?
1. We recognize and respond when we see unfair practices in play.
As part of our work, we often help clients identify and develop their workforce, including participating in recruitment and candidate interviews. Working in healthcare means that many of the candidates and workforce members are female. Generally speaking, women are willing to go the extra mile in furtherance of their calling. This can get exploitative. We encourage clients to write job descriptions for open roles in a way that does not preclude highly qualified and capable candidates based on arbitrary criteria that is not actually related to role performance. When including a requirement, we insist that the client clearly articulate the necessity for the provision.
For example, why is it necessary that someone have 7 to 10 years of experience managing a team for a management position? For the interviews, we encourage clients to use a standard set of questions that ALL candidates are asked and that they use a diverse panel of interviewers. This approach ensures that candidates are all asked the same questions, allowing interviewers to assess candidates on an apple-to-apple basis. Having a diverse panel also brings in different perspectives and mitigates the bias that can occur when interviewing someone that looks like or talks like you.
As an example, I participated in an interview panel for a client of a rock star candidate. After the interviews were complete, a male member of the committee wanted to reject this candidate because she “seemed to lack confidence.” I took this opportunity to talk about the different way women and men tend to communicate and pointed out his bias towards a more typical male way of speaking and holding oneself. In the end, the client did in fact hire this candidate and the male committee member later said it was one of the best decisions they made that year.
2. We partner and champion other women-led enterprises.
Atromitos is a richer and more dynamic environment for our partners. We can’t (and don’t want to) do all the things. For example, I am a lawyer by training. I am NOT a clinician and get very grumpy when healthcare administrators look to me (however obliquely) for clinical decisions. Nope. Not happening. Let me introduce my colleague Lavondia Alexander of Evolve Health Strategists
, who also serves as a Senior Advisor and subcontractor to Atromitos. You need help recruiting or establishing effective Human Resource policies and programs? Meet Lisa Leath of Leath HR
. Need coaching or training/development services for your employees? Here’s Stefanie Adams from WNY People Development, Inc
. Through Our Ideas articles, we invite guest authors, predominantly women owned or led organizations so that we can promote their voices.
3. We create a psychologically safe environment
where our team members can be themselves, express what they are thinking, ask questions, and present alternatives. To me, this is about creating a culture that appreciates, desires, and respects different perspectives, so that we can learn and grow. To me, personally, this is the most important part of what I can do as a business owner and leader. So much so that I have dismissed members from our team because they did not respect this value.
When I look back, my goodness we have come so far. But, while I am glad that women no longer automatically need a male relative as a signatory for a business loan (yes, that was a thing in some states until 1988
) we have so much further to go. The arc of human history may bend towards justice
, but it is still a long path, and we have to actually walk it. I’m committed to doing my part
My company is committed to doing its part. What is your commitment?
Michealle Gady, JD, is Founder and President of Atromitos, LLC, a boutique consulting firm headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina. Atromitos works with a variety of organizations from health payers and technology companies, to community-based organizations and nonprofits but their work reflects a singular mission: creating healthier, more resilient, and more equitable communities. Michealle takes nearly 20 years’ experience in health law and policy, program design and implementation, value-based care, and change management and puts it to work for Atromitos’ partners who are trying to succeed during this time of dramatic transformation within the U.S. healthcare system. Outside of leading the Atromitos team, Michealle serves as a Board Member for both the Cape Fear Literacy Council and A Safe Place and is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives and American Health Law Association.