Few weeks ago, I was getting my Harvard Business Review article fix when I came across an article on women ranking higher than men in most leadership skills (Jack Zenger 2019). The article was based on research conducted across more than 7,000 men and women and aimed to explain why, despite this perception of women’s competent leadership, there were much fewer women in leadership roles than men.
Unconscious bias, which is defined as an automatic and deep-seated stereotype that is unintentional and can influence behavior, was pinpointed as a key contributor to the status quo. The article continued to show that when women were asked to evaluate their level of confidence, those below the age of 25 tended to be more conservative in their rating, but this more than tripled that of men as women grew older. No doubt this reflected the time it took for women to wean themselves from decades of long-held beliefs about their capabilities and roles in society.
All this got me thinking about how unconscious biases play out in our Kenyan society today, mainly
propagated by our own traditional customs and beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, I think customs and beliefs are not the problem in and of themselves, but rather how they are misinterpreted to the detriment of select groups. The fact that these biases begin at home means that they become far more ingrained in our actions and words, becoming the rule rather than the exception. There are evidences all around us, especially in more rural setups, that point to how women have been relegated to second class citizenry in their own homes. Think of the times you have seen girls held back from pursuing their education if it means there is only enough fees to take one child through school, never mind whether the girl is on the cusp of doing her national exams and the boy is just getting into first grade. Or the times when girls have been married off at a very young age if it means an additional herd of cattle for the household.
At the workplace, we have probably seen that familiar scenario play out in the office, where both Mark and Margaret express their interest in the same role, and despite Margaret being better suited due to her vast experience and skillset, Mark gets the role because the optics favor him. While I accept that much more goes into making a hiring decision than mere experience and skill, I have used this simple illustration to show how deeply ingrained biases dictate our choices. If this is happening at more junior level positions, it is no wonder then that less than 20% of Kenyan firms have female top managers, compared to more than 80% firms having male top managers (World Economic Forum 2019) .
Changing this narrative on gender inequality is no easy feat. Our approach to addressing it as a society therefore needs to be targeted at the root cause if we are to have a fighting chance for the sake of future generations. While it is more difficult to change the dynamics within the home, I think our schools and education system are well-suited to address this challenge. All things held equal, if the government was to ensure that free primary education is indeed free – without the (hidden) additional costs that parents are forced to make – such that the decision about which child to educate is removed from the hands of poor parents, then it would mean both boys and girls get access to education. Schools could then use this opportunity to both teach and show children the meaning of gender equality, and even have a subject dedicated to the matter, much like we have with sex education, thereby normalizing these principles from a formative age. Of course, it could still be that gender equality remains a foreign concept in their homes, but the fact that the children get to have different perspectives on the matter increases their likelihood of breaking this cycle.
This has knock-on effects on the behavior of children as they grow into adults. A girl who grows up believing that she is just as capable as any other boy will be more confident when it comes to pursuing opportunities in life. A boy who grows up believing that girls are equally suited to achieving the same goals as he is more likely to hold the woman in utmost regard and treat her as an equal. When such individuals are unleashed on society, they are far more likely to make less bias-driven decisions, thereby allowing competency to speak for itself and kicking gender-marred opinions to the curb. That way, we will not have to convince society of women’s greatness and leadership potential; society will purposely seek out women with full knowledge of what they bring to the table. I, personally, look forward to this day.
But alas, implementing such change within our school system is not as simple as it sounds, given that our very decision makers may also be grappling with their own unconscious biases against women. But a girl can continue to hope!