Biases built into our workplaces

Caroline Criado-Perez in her book “Invisible Women. Data bias in a world designed for men” exposes how gender data gaps make our workplaces designed without taking into account the realities of life for half of humanity. One of these gaps is underestimating the amount of unpaid care and domestic work done by women. Globally, women do almost three times as much of it as men. Time outside of working hours is too much lesser extend time off work. And this is not optional – Criado-Perez points out: We like to think that the unpaid work women do is just about individual women caring for their individual family members to their own individual benefit. It isn’t. Women’s unpaid work is work that society depends on, and it is work from which society as a whole benefits.

The example of X illustrates that the bias against women doesn’t have to be intentional – it is what follows when you don’t account for the fact that the realities of women’s lives may be different from the realities of men’s lives. And you don’t have to require volunteering at specific charitable initiatives for that to happen.

The assumption that life can be divided into two parts – work and free time – is still hidden in many aspects of the functioning of our organizations. Standard working hours are completely uncorrelated with the time of functioning of schools, nurseries, hospitals and medical clinics, and do not take into account the location of these places. In many organizations, we still confuse “working overtime” with efficiency and commitment. Who will be more successful in a workplace built like that? A person doing less care and domestic work with fewer obligations related to caring for children or elderly family members – statistically it is a man.

The myth of neutrality

Insufficient childcare and caregiving support along with the lack of access to flexible and remote work continue to be major challenges for women. I personally know women – experts in their respective fields – who quit their full-time jobs and switched to running their own businesses after having a child. They made this “decision” as their previous organizations did not give them enough flexibility. It took a global pandemic for many workplaces to introduce flexible and remote work on a larger scale. However, if you think that the pandemic reduced gender inequalities you are wrong. Women felt the effects of the pandemic more than men and had to do even more unpaid care and domestic work than before. Besides, access to flexible and remote work is very limited and available mostly to the most privileged groups of workers.

How work is organized is not “objective” nor “neutral”. Women often get cold in offices because the temperature is set at the level of a “typical” employee which means a man in a suit. Basic HR practices are also designed for men. The recruitment process or talent management practices favour people who rate their competencies higher. Globally, men believe they are much smarter than women and tend to overestimate their capabilities. When job posts or talent development programs have a long list of requirements with no distinction between “must have” and “nice to have” this will favour men. Performance evaluations are also biased against women and research showed that on average women are rated as less able and worthy than men, even if their work is identical.

Moving forward

So far I only gave examples of how workplaces were designed for men to illustrate the main point – that neutrality is a myth. But this is just a part of the story about the biases built into the functioning of our workplaces. There are very narrow assumptions about who this man is – for example, he is white, he is heterosexual and his sex assigned at birth matches his gender identity, he has an upper-class background, is neurotypical, comes from a dominant culture, and has no disabilities. These assumptions often become apparent when you review organizational policies and processes with a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion lens.

The myth of neutrality must collapse if we are to design workplaces that work well for all. Everyone will benefit because the assumptions about “typical men” are outdated if ever they were true. How to do it? James Baldwin wrote: Not everything we face can change, but nothing can change until we face it.

If you have an influence over shaping policies and practices in your organization or if you manage teams:

  • Note that your solutions are NOT objective nor neutral, but they are based on assumptions about the “typical” employee
  • Verify these assumptions and check if what you propose meets the needs of different groups of employees. Consult and ensure the diversity of the team making the final decisions
  • Build a culture of empathy and psychological safety so people feel free to talk about their needs
  • If you can, create flexible solutions, e.g. access to remote work, a paid day off for cultural or religious celebrations and holidays that are not the practices of the dominant culture
  • Collect feedback regularly and monitor how your solutions affect different groups or how the needs might change
  • Act on the feedback, make improvements when needed, and communicate them to your employees

If we want to create workplaces where everyone has equal access to opportunities, we still need to debunk the myth of meritocracy (the belief that the world is fundamentally fair, and that talent and diligence determine success). I explore this topic in our newly launched e-learning course Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Starter. In the meantime, I encourage you to critically examine who succeeds in your workplace and notice inequities in the results for different groups.

Anna Kostecka (she/her)

Managing Director at What Works. She is a globally-minded Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategist with 12+ years of experience supporting organizations around the world on their DEI journey.