Boy blindfolded

Three Ways to Activate Young Men for Workplace Gender Equality (Part 2)

The first article in this 3-part series discussed the invisible wind of workplace privilege and a series of questions young men should ask themselves to identify ways they may receive preferential treatment at work. This article is focused on the importance of young men unearthing their implicit biases (X-minute read)

Tactic #2: Explore Your Implicit Biases

As mentioned in the first article, exploring the ways in which your own organization is biased is a solid first step toward building awareness of gender inequality, but it is not the only step. Of all of the statistics I’ve seen related to gender inequality, the most interesting one is focused not on the pay gap or hiring biases, but on the mushy gray stuff between men’s ears.

In a sample of 4,000 men polled in the United Kingdom, 9 out of 10 of them want the women in their lives to have equality of opportunity with men and 7 out of 10 of them “believed that a more equal society between men and women would be better for the economy.” What these polls indicate is that the majority of men state explicitly that they want and support gender equality. This reality isn’t just true in the United Kingdom. There are millions of well-meaning men in the United States, both young and old, who I imagine would say the same thing. The percentage of people who would out themselves as explicitly sexist is a small minority.

So if it seems like the mass majority of men support gender and workplace equality, then why are the high-level statistics still so problematic? One answer is implicit bias.

Blindfolded boy: Image via Wikiemedia Commons

The Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University defines implicit biases as, “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Implicit biases often contradict a person’s stated beliefs and values and every human being has them. These biases deeply affect our interpersonal and workplace interactions.

For instance, as men, we learn and are taught numerous beliefs about our role in the workforce that may bias us. The young men I worked with at Venture for America identified many of them in our conversations, including men being viewed as more technically savvy, less prone to emotionally erratic decision-making, and more prone to being interpreted as the primary breadwinner.

These biases are widespread in American society and can have a real effect on the workforce. Project Implicit, a Harvard-led, international research collaboration with a mission of educating the public on hidden biases, shows that implicit biases have a predictive quality on a macro level. They say that, “while a single [bias test] is unlikely to be a good predictor of a single person’s behavior at a single time point, across many people the [bias test] does predict behavior in areas such as discrimination in hiring and promotion.”

These implicit biases aren’t just present in people in their mid-late careers, the Don Draper-esque dinosaurs of the working world who are close to retirement age. When I took Project Implicit’s test on implicit associations between gender and career, for instance, I (29 years young) joined 24% of the population who demonstrated a strong implicit bias toward linking men and career and women with family.

Aggregate results of Project Implicit’s “Gender-Career” Implicit Association Test

My scores were likely influenced by my father’s role as primary breadwinner and my mother’s role as primary caretaker as well as growing up in the white-picket-fence conservative suburbs of a city in the South where traditional gender roles were strongly enforced.

I’m not alone as a millennial man demonstrating implicit bias. A 2014 Harvard Business School survey showed that “3 out of 4 millennial women anticipated their career would be at least as important as their partners’, while half (1 out of 2) of the men expected that their own careers would take priority. Likewise, less than half of the women MBA graduates believed they would handle most of the child care, while two-thirds of their male peers believed their wives would do so” (emphasis mine).

Young men entering the workforce, like all people, aren’t free from bias. These biases don’t make us inherently bad people, but being blind to them is a real risk-factor for perpetuating workplace inequality.

Facing Your Implicit Bias

In order to counteract biases, one must first become aware of them. Taking Project Implicit’s test on implicit associations between gender and career is a must, as is reflection afterwards.

After taking it, you can ask yourself, “In what ways might my experiences growing up affect the ways that I perceive gender in the workplace? Who was my primary caretaker? Did my primary caretaker work? Which occupations were men dominant in, and which women? Did I see women in executive leadership positions? Were there representations of female leaders or managers in the media I read or watched?”

There are additional proven tactics to counter your implicit biases. One tactic, suggested by Project Implicit, is “ensuring that implicit biases don’t leak out in the first place.” If you’re participating in the hiring process, for instance, “you can ‘blind’ yourself from learning a person’s gender or race when you’re making a decision about them by having their name removed from the top of a resume” during review.”

Another strategy Project Implicit suggests is to “compensate for your implicit preferences.” For example, if you find yourself connecting only to the other men in your workplace, you can go beyond your comfort zone and befriend women in your organization. Research shows that knowing others’ personal stories increases empathy and might increase awareness in a male colleague who had trouble understanding the struggles women or minorities face at work.  

The last suggestion that Project Implicit has for fighting biases is changing, “what gets into [your] mind in the first place… This could mean going out of your way to watch television programs and movies that portray women and minority groups in positive or counter-stereotypical ways.” Media plays a profound role in bias creation and being aware of the effects of it is important to shifting potentially harmful beliefs.

In the Next Article…

In the final article in this series, we’ll focus on complex beliefs held by young men, especially young white men, that may prevent them from being advocates for gender equality.


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