I have spent well over a decade focused on the progress of corporate women – how far women have come, how far they have yet to go, and why progress has been so slow. While there are lots of thoughts on the “why” question, at the root, it is unconscious gender bias. I believe that confronting unconscious bias in the workplace is a worthwhile mission. I also know that there are more serious or compelling issues facing women (and other groups) in the U.S. and globally.
The unconscious bias facing women in the business world is just one of the many faces of gender bias. And it is clearly not its ugliest. If this issue were an iceberg, what I have been working on (getting more women CEO’s, senior executives, and successful entrepreneurs) is at the tippy top. What’s below?
- Mid-level women aspiring to reach the top (or considering giving up).
- Frontline women and women working hourly jobs.
- The gender pay gap.
The faces of gender bias get uglier as we move below the water level. There is overt gender discrimination — for example, the spoken or unspoken belief like that expressed by a (former) Google employee, that women can’t succeed in the tech field. As ugly or uglier is objectification of women — as exemplified by cat calls or a famous man bragging that his fame enables him to grab women in the private parts (i.e., sexually assault them).
Uglier still is how gender plays out in poverty. Women, particularly single women, are more likely to be poor. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “more than one in eight women and more than one in three single-mother families are poor.”
And then there is violence against women. Women are regularly victims of emotional and physical abuse by a spouse or partner. Abuse takes many forms: Actual violence, including sexual violence, threats, emotional or psychological abuse, and financial abuse. One report estimates that one in ten women in the United States will be raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime. According to global estimates published by the World Health Organization, 35% of women worldwide in their lifetime have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner.
And across the globe, the bias takes on forms that most Americans simply don’t relate to. For example a woman in Saudi Arabia still requires the permission of her husband or other male relative to open a bank account, obtain a passport or travel abroad. Women are shamed for driving a car, wearing makeup or showing flesh, competing in sports, or going places where they might mix with men.
Deep in the iceberg are “honor” killings, forced marriages (particularly in Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa), and female genital mutilation. And at the deepest darkest level there is human trafficking. I am (at last) reading Half the Sky, which documents the scope of this issue. It is hard to comprehend that 8.5 million people are trafficked annually into prostitution, forced labor, slavery or servitude. Women and girls account for about 80% of the reported victims. And in the U.S., 100,000-300,000 boys and girls (mostly ages 13-15) disappear into this world every year. Consider watching the film SOLD — and join me in exploring what can be done about this.
This is a huge iceberg. Next to it is an iceberg about racism. At the top, we acknowledge the historic election of a black president and measure how many people of color are government leaders and CEO’s. At the bottom is white supremacy and the racist history that was re-lived in Charlottesville in August.
Looking at the many faces of bias against women is pretty depressing. Given the ugliness at the lower levels, should those above water and at the top just shut up and be grateful? I think not. The more progress we make at the top, the more powerful women there will be to take on the issues deeper in the sea. I will continue to work on issues facing women at the top. I will give more of my energy and time to women below the water line.
Where do you think you and the world need to focus on this iceberg?