Focus on Women in STEM: Katja Forbes on stamping out bias in the workplace


Recently it was debated whether, if resumes and CVs were to exclude the name of the candidate, then employer bias between job candidates would surely stop being a valid concern, and the job will go to the best suited applicant. At first glance it seems like a straight forward solution to a problem that just simply shouldn’t be as complex as it is in the first place.  But, looking at this suggestion with greater detail, demonstrates that it simply wouldn’t provide the anticipated outcome.


Going right back to the beginning, the problem that Australia, and nearly all other developed countries are experiencing, is that women simply don’t receive the same opportunities men do on many different levels. However, for the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on professional opportunities. Unfortunately, reliable research continues to show that men and women do not receive similar financial renumeration for exactly the same work, and in addition to that, women simply cannot reach the professional seniority levels that men do. These circumstances have come about due to a large scope of gender assumptions and expectations created a great many years ago that simply don’t apply anymore. Today, not only is gender itself rightly more fluid than it used to be, but a human’s biology should have no bearing on their professional life. If they have the experience and the skills required for the job, they should receive just the same ability to receive it, together with the same associated.


This is where the argument discussed above steps in. The idea is that if the resume doesn’t indicate whether the applicant is a man or a woman (for example by removing their name because that might be an indication as to whether male or female and even culture), then the assumed bias shouldn’t exist. The hopeful solution is that the position would be given to the applicant who more closely matches the experience and skills required.


From this point of view, it would certainly make sense that the job would be awarded to the best qualified applicant.


Except, now going deeper, we encounter another problem. Opportunity. More women would not have even received the opportunity in the first place and do not have the qualifications required to apply for the job.  Of course, this could be slanted the opposite way in some “women popular” industries like the beauty industry or teaching, but in many corporate roles, especially in more senior levels, the women applicants simply wouldn’t be there in the first place. Why aren’t they qualified or experienced for those positions? Well, there are a number of reasons. Bias starts very early and is sometimes incredibly difficult to catch. It starts when a little boy is given a book about building things and little girl is given a book about princesses and beauty. It persists through schooling in both primary and high schools where gender stereotypes result in praise for boys for choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects and careers, while steering girls towards arts and humanities.


Perhaps peer pressure was to blame for a failure to apply for an engineering degree? I discussed this with a university engineering lecturer who bemoaned the lack of women in his course and stated he believed the exclusion from engineering started before they even got to school. Perhaps they suspected that their employment opportunities for a job in a male-dominated industry would be slim, and they would be blocked from climbing the ladder of seniority? Whatever the reason, the women applicants just simply aren’t there in the first place.


Now that we can identify the real issue at heart, how can we target it? Firstly, we clearly need incentives for women to enter industries that used to be known as “male dominated” (and vice versa of course.)  The next issue is that the women entering the industry and working their way up the ladder tend to be faced with unique obstacles as they reach managerial level positions.  Somehow, men are able to persevere into these positions of seniority, whilst women simply fall by the wayside perhaps due to family and choices around children or through lack of support and mentoring.  As a society, we refuse to believe that women simply do not want these more senior levels.  There are deliberate roadblocks to prevent women from landing up there in the first place.


Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013, and a very smart human, offers some profound opinions and ideas.  According to Gillard, the top three barriers to women’s success at work, include: employers not doing enough to close the gender gap; a lack of support from employers for balancing personal/family care and work; and employers not promoting women into senior positions. When speaking at Sydney Town Hall a few years ago and later quoted in the Guardian (media outlet), she quickly dismantled the “merit” argument by stating that “If you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the genders, then if you look at any institution, like a parliament, and you don’t see roughly half men and half women then, clearly, you don’t have the people of the greatest merit there.”   You have the people who got the greatest opportunity.


With this in mind, Gillard suggested that women should be actively shown preferred treatment over men to get them into those senior positions. Therefore, when it comes to the job applicant process, if two applicants had exactly the same experience and abilities, and one were a man and the other a woman, then the woman should be given preference. They should also be given preference to women within the workplace for promotion.  Obviously, I am not suggesting that incompetent women without the required abilities receive positions based simply on human biology. I am simply suggesting that women deserve a hand up, not a hand out. If there are more women in senior roles, the effect will be that gradually more women applicants will feel they have opportunity in senior corporate positions in the first place, as they have more visible women role models to help light the way forward.



By Katja Forbes, International Director on the Interaction Design Association Board and MD of Aus/NZ Designit.











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