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International Women’s Day: Know the Bias to #BreakTheBias

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) is #BreakTheBias, with the theme advocating for a gender-equal world free of bias and discrimination. However, to “break the bias” and ensure a truly inclusive world, we need to first understand what these biases are and how they can take shape in our everyday lives, unconscious or otherwise.

This blog, in honour of IWD, explores these workplace biases, the impact they have as well as what you can do to address them:

Dual bias Gender and Race 

This blog would be incomplete without addressing the experiences of women of colour who unfortunately are the worst affected by workplace biases, having to contend with the stereotypes and prejudices that come with both their gender and race. This issue has only been exasperated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, according to the Fawcett society, women of colour are less likely to be employed than their white British female counterparts, with one statistic showing Pakistani and Bangladeshi women being the worst off, with an employment rate of just 39%. What’s more, is that women of colour are also paid less per hour in comparison to white men, and when the pandemic hit, women of colour faced a 14% drop in earnings by February 2021 in comparison to just 5% amongst white, British women. Women of colour who are mothers were also hard hit by the pandemic, with 48% being furloughed and nearly 50% reporting having lost working hours.

Once employed, the everyday experiences of women of colour is also an unfortunate reality. According to TUC research , nearly half of  all women of colour have been victim to unfair treatment, often having to complete unfavourable tasks in comparison to their white counterparts. Furthermore, women of colour also face discrimination when it comes to job opportunities, with 31% of women of colour reporting having been denied a promotion at work. It goes further, with 34% of women reporting they have been at the receiving end of racist jokes, and 30% have been subject to racist verbal abuse. This is the reality of work for women of colour, and is something that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Religious Misinformation:

Islamic Relief as an organisation also recognises that one of the challenges we have in the Muslim community is the harmful cultural practices that are often disguised as religious doctrines, which unfortunately hold women back and contribute to discrimination. This can transcend across all forms of bias.

This is why at Islamic Relief, we have created the . The declaration is a call to action against gender inequality from an Islamic faith perspective, and seeks to tackle discrimination and harmful practices, especially against women and girls in Muslim communities.

The declaration affirms  the rights of all  women and aims to bring together organisations to ‘stand firmly’ for gender justice and restore justice through a mainstream voice inspired by faith. This will also challenge some of the misconceptions around a woman’s role and encourage people to stamp out any biases they hold towards Muslim women.

Motherhood bias 

The motherhood or maternal bias comes out of a belief that mothers or pregnant women are less committed to their jobs. This stems from the stereotypical belief that women will not be able to manage the demands of motherhood and their jobs. In fact, women often face the “motherhood penalty”, with British mothers getting 45% lesser earnings than those who are not mothers according to UCL research. What’s more is that even when women are in jobs, they are also more likely to face benevolent bias with managers, who shield mothers from complex tasks, cut back hours and exhibit more leniency, which can all prove to be detrimental.

Islamic Relief has been working hard to overcome some of the difficulties mothers can face across the globe. In rural communities in Albania for example, it can be a struggle for girls and women to gain training to find employment and become self-sufficient – especially later in life, when a family loses the father who is typically the breadwinner, making it difficult for women in these circumstances to find work.

To tackle this bias and support the empowerment of women Islamic Relief offered classes to provide thesm with a trade, and the skills to earn a decent living. Subjects included English, IT, secretarial, marketing and management, handicrafts, and rearing livestock. Empowering women to #BreakTheBias and earn for themselves and their families.

Agentic bias

Even when women display the agentic behaviours that are commonly ascribed to men (powerful, independent, forceful), the fact that they are women still affects them. The more agentic a woman is, the more she is away from the gender stereotypes traditionally associated with being a woman and is therefore deemed unfavourable – can’t win here it would seem!

This is often called the ‘goldilocks dilemma’. It’s a juggle between having to navigate being too stereotypically female and therefore incompetent for leadership positions, or too agentic and therefore judged harshly. This can lead some women to face many double standards in the workplace. A good example might be looking at how traits are looked at through the biased lens:

  1. When he’s persuasive, she is deemed pushy.
  2. When he is a leader, she is considered bossy.
  3. When he is confident, she is arrogant, and the list continues.

This ultimately results in women working twice as hard to climb up the career ladder.

Self-limiting bias 

When it comes to biases, it is often something that we believe comes from others. However, there also exists something called a self-limiting bias, which comes from our internalized beliefs around gender stereotypes and how we should behave within them, as well as what career aspirations we should hold. This bias is limiting as it prohibits women from pursuing career paths that are stereotypically male or going for more leadership positions. Alongside this bias comes the “stereotype threat”, which is the internal anxiety one feels at pursuing boundaries outside their gender stereotype.

One great example which illustrates this bias are job applications, and the difference in behaviour between men and women when it comes to applying. For instance, a man will apply for a job even if they have 60% of the job criteria, whilst women will typically only apply if they make 100% of the job specification. This highlights one of the ways our  internalised beliefs can be the first barrier to women reaching their true potential.

Islamic Relief has been working hard to challenge some of the internalized beliefs that many Muslim women may hold, especially pertaining to mosque management. In some areas, the mosque is predominantly a space for men with little to no room for women. Islamic relief therefore created the Women in Mosques Development Programme, working with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to encourage more women to take up leadership positions within mosques, encouraging women to become the mosque trustees, committee members and centre managers. A large part of this programme was aimed at challenging misinterpretations of the Muslim faith, especially in terms of a Muslim women’s role in society. This has led graduates to not only take up more leadership positions within mosques, but to also become community leaders.

Benevolent bias 

This bias arises when a woman is seen through the lens of the damsel in distress narrative. A person who holds this bias will have a paternalistic view towards their female colleagues, often going out of their way to protect or shield them from strenuous or complex tasks. This bias stems from the stereotype that women are weak and lack the cut through perseverance and tenacity typically desired for leadership positions. This bias extends further when a woman’s work is superficially praised or inflated, even when completing menial tasks. The problem with this type of bias, although it may seem positive, is that it can ultimately stifle a woman’s potential with them being unable to acquire the skills and experiences to meaningfully develop in their careers. Whichever way you look at it, sexism is sexism – even if it is sugar-coated!

Negative bias 

 A negative bias is holding negative stereotypes towards women simply because they are women. In the world of work, this can be displayed by questioning a women’s suitability for a role, especially if that role is in a leadership position, is high pressured and requires confidence – all attributes that are unfairly and rather stereotypically assigned to men. However, this bias cuts deep and has a massive impact on a women’s prospects. For example, if a gatekeeper or a hiring manager has these biases, they may have low expectations of a female candidate, believing they are not fit for the job based on their own biases, ultimately disregarding the actual talents and merits of that person. Therefore, women can be unfairly denied a promotion or are boxed into assistive rather than leadership roles.

The global gender gap index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education, and health-based criteria. In 2021, the United Kingdom ranked 23rd on the global gender gap index, placing it behind other European countries such as France, Germany, and Ireland.

Ultimately being a woman hurts your pockets In the UK – as of March 2021 the gender pay gap stands at an average of 15.5% and according to recent TUC reports, this means that women work for free for nearly two months a year. So, although we may have gotten better over the years, we still have a long way to go to ensure true pay equality.

How to break the bias:

Now that we have explored some of the workplace biases we may encounter, we can begin to address how we can better deal with and counteract workplace biases or #BreakTheBias so to speak. Here is a list of the essential steps people can take to ensure a workplace that is truly inclusive and free of discrimination:

  1. Knowledge is power: To combat bias towards women, we first need to understand what stereotyping is, as well as the negative biases that can arise from it. Therefore, at the first instance employees must be trained on this so that they can keep a fair and inclusive mindset when working.
  2. Start with diversity: If you are after a truly diverse workforce, this must be reflected right from the onset with the shortlisted candidates. Research supports this with women being 79 times more likely to get the job when there are two women on the final shortlist. The same is the case with ethnic minorities with the chances of recruitment increasing by 194 times if the final pool has two or more people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Therefore, a concerted effort needs to be made to ensure that the final pool of candidates reflects that, but also that you are encouraging people to apply through career development opportunities.
  3. Make it part of the company culture: By encouraging open dialogue and regular training, you can ensure that staff are up to speed with workplace biases and are mindful of them.
  4. Transparent recruitment process: Ensure that the recruitment process is as transparent as possible with their being objective criteria that candidates are marked against. This will ensure that hiring is not biased and will build trust with candidates.
  5. Make managers accountable: Managers must ensure that they set an example when it comes to their conduct at work, this involves being proactive against bias and ensuring that their subordinates are being treated fairly with equal opportunity to climb the company ladder.
  6. Inclusive and safe places: Having a safe space where employees can put forward any complaints they have anonymously, will allow staff to honestly come forward if they feel they have been unfairly treated by bias. Thus, allowing the organisation the opportunity to take effective action against it and address concerns. 
  7. Transparent evaluation process: Much like the recruitment process, staff performance evaluations also need to be objective and transparent. This will ensure that appraisals are fair and represent the true performance of the individual.
  8. Invest in employee development: A great organisation will also develop the skills and experiences of staff by offering training opportunities and courses that are open and accessible to all as well as offering sabbaticals and job-sharing opportunities.

Workplace biases, as we have seen, certainly have an impact on the lives of women both here in the UK and across the world, and it is only through a collective effort that we can bring about change. Join Islamic Relief UK this international women’s day to #BreakTheBias and ensure a truly inclusive world free of bias and discrimination.

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