On International Women’s Day, Punter Southall Law Partner, Claire Thorogood, takes a look at gender bias and how it impacts on Women & Money
Today is International Women’s Day (IWD) – marked across the world on 8 March since 1914, and as a consequence of an international conference of working women in Denmark in 1911. On that occasion, more than 1m women and men attended rallies to push for women’s rights: to work, to vote, to be trained, to hold public office and to end discrimination.
When we consider the last 100 years, there has been much progress – in education, women’s representation and participation in the workplace, politics, media and business. However, there is a distinction and deficit between societal progress and progress in the workplace. Significant issues including equal pay, representation and discrimination would be familiar (and no doubt depressing) to early 20th Century campaigners.
The impact on women and in particular, on working mothers, during the pandemic has been much publicised over the past (almost) two years. Much has been written about the “double-shift” women undertake when they have to combine paid work with their unpaid work as primary care-givers in a family. This resonates with IWD’s theme this year: #breakthebias.
The theme offers an opportunity to consider how the stereotyping and bias that operates in respect of girls and women lead to inequality at every stage of life and – too often – to being poorer and more financially insecure in later life.
The Life-Cycle of Bias
Mary Ann Sieghart’s book, ‘The Authority Gap’, powerfully charts the bias that women face from their very earliest years. She records research to show how, aged 5, children already believe that boys are better at Maths than girls (when evidence actually points the other way) and how, when asked to choose team-mates for a game for “really, really smart” kids, children of both genders choose boys. The research suggests that this isn’t surprising given that messages of male superiority come from (pretty much) everyone including parents and teachers and, from everywhere (e.g. media, advertising).
None of this is deliberate or intentional; social conditioning has tended to lead to parents believing that their sons are cleverer even at ages where girls outperform them and to teachers giving significantly more attention and encouragement to boys. In one piece of research, toddler boys interrupted girls twice as often as the little girls interrupted them. Boys from an early age understand that they carry the power to shape their environment; girls adapt to it. And this is just the start….
As women move into study and work, we see these and other themes repeat themselves. Age-old issues around the perception and interpretation of behaviour from men and women play out. The same behaviour that is regarded as decisive and authoritative in a man might too often be regarded as strident and abrasive in a woman – and not just by men. We have each absorbed the blue-print for what a leader looks like – as well as a Prime Minister, a surgeon, a politician and a care-giver. On some level and to differing degrees, power exercised by a woman can seem un-feminine or against type and behaviour driven by such unconscious stereotyping impacts a woman’s experience of the workplace at every level. Sieghart’s book is an expert and thorough exploration of this.
However, it is clear that amongst the wide-ranging consequences for women of unconscious bias in the workplace, there are particular career risks to women when they exercise the role of primary care-giver and frequently move to part-time/flexible working.Almost immediately, they are perceived as less committed and less ambitious. Post-pandemic, hybrid-working is for them double-edged: on the one hand it offers greater flexibility to manage the demands of work and home and on the other hand, impacts detrimentally on their visibility. Their career progression and advancement is likely to require a sacrifice of one – in a way that does not tend to apply to men.
And even before, or indeed without children in the mix, women are promoted more slowly than their male contemporaries: a “broken rung” at the start of their careers which results in fewer women in senior roles. For women of colour, these issues are often exacerbated – on entry, on promotion and on perception of competence.
As Sieghart says, “like compound interest, the cumulative effect of the authority gap rolls up over a woman’s life to produce by the end, a gaping difference in opportunity and achievement compared with her male contemporaries”. It also leads to serious financial repercussions.
Women & Money
Part-time and flexible working as well as inequitable advancement has long-term consequences: women are still reaching retirement with significantly less pension for retirement on account of career decisions made based upon family commitments.
Something discussed less often though are the financial decisions often made by women in a divorce. The average age for a woman divorcing in the UK is 43 – an age when she may well have primary caring responsibility for school-aged children. Evidence suggests that all too often women sacrifice the highly valuable pension asset in a divorce settlement in favour of the family home without fully appreciating (or not being fully advised about) the pension’s value and its impact on their long-term security.
The problems of discrimination and bias are complex and deep-rooted but there is good news: there are concrete steps – as individuals and as organisations - we can take to help disrupt the (bias) patterns we have absorbed and apply still. For individuals, the Harvard University implicit bias test isn’t a bad place to start the journey. For organisations, start with data and systematic tracking against a clear action plan and targets. If we succeed, a fairer workplace also becomes a more profitable one.
Regular readers of blogs from other Punter Southall companies will know that issues such as the gender gap and practical help for people unable to access advice is a consistent theme. Female financial education, awareness and empowerment is an area to which we’ll return in 2022.
The #breakthebias theme offers an opportunity to consider how the stereotyping and bias that operates in respect of girls and women lead to inequality at every stage of life and – too often – to being poorer and more financially insecure in later life