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Reetta Makinen, People and Culture Officer at We Are Unity

Gender bias: Like it or not, it’s probably hiding in your business 

Gender bias is the act of showing either preference or prejudice to one gender over another – whether knowingly or unknowingly. By giving one gender preferential treatment, the other gender loses out, leading to discrimination.

Australia signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1983. It is illegal to discriminate against a person because of their sex, gender identity, intersex status, sexual orientation, marital or relationship status, family responsibilities, because they are pregnant or might become pregnant or because they are breastfeeding.

Women have been fighting to end gender discrimination for years – so much so that it would be easy for some business leaders to assume that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, or at least, not an issue that their business needs to worry about. 

Unfortunately, despite the law, gender discrimination is still rife in many businesses around Australia – even those that believe they’ve got the issue under control. 

The bias lurking in language

Gender bias can affect organisations in many ways, from the gender pay gap to biased language being used in the boardroom. In fact, new research from We Are Unity found 83% of the ASX300 used gender-imbalanced language in their annual reports, with three out of five organisations using the masculine ‘chairman’ when referring to their chair. 

While it’s positive to see that 40% now use the UN and Diversity Council recommended chair or chairperson, the majority of organisations (60%) are using a label that positions the role as male-oriented. The report found ‘chairman’ was used 6738 times across the ASX 300 annual reports, while chairwoman just three times. Gender-neutral terms such as chair/chairperson appeared 4598 times. 

The largest implicit gender bias detected in annual reports is in the metals and mining sector with the report finding 90 per cent of companies in this sector suffer from an implicit gender bias. This is followed by oil and gas companies (86%) and software companies (78%). 

If your business publishes an annual report, go and check it for signs of gender-biased language – you might be surprised at what you find. Listen out for similar signs within your messaging apps, work calls, and business meetings, and aim to redress the balance wherever you can. 

There’s even an online tool available to scan for gender-coded language in your job ads, which can have an effect on how likely women are to apply for certain roles. The tool was inspired by a research paper written by Danielle Gaucher, Justin Friesen, and Aaron C. Kay, which found women felt job adverts with masculine-coded language were less appealing and that they ‘belonged’ less in those occupations. 

The gender pay gap and women in leadership

An insidious gender pay gap is another way that discrimination might be leaking in your business – and you might not even be aware of it. Australia’s national gender pay gap is 14.2%. As of August 2021, women’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings across all industries and occupations was $1,575.50, compared to men’s average weekly ordinary full-time earnings of $1,837.

Having women in leadership is vital for addressing the gender pay gap. Research shows that having equal representation of women on governing boards leads to a 6.3 percentage point reduction in the gender pay gap for full-time managers, and organisations with balanced representation of women in executive leadership roles have pay gaps half the size of those with the least representation of women in leadership. 

Women in leadership has an effect on gender-biased language, too. According to the We Are Unity research, the proportion of women leading ASX 300 entities is 6.2 per cent, with 18 women in such positions. The implicit gender bias amongst companies with a female CEO decreases to 68% (compared to 75% ASX 300 average). These findings should give Australia’s leaders pause for thought about how they represent people, roles and stories of impact across their business and spur a pathway for change. 

Gender discrimination is a huge issue that must be set as a priority that filters through to all areas of your business. Breaking the bias and building diverse workforces that value all genders – male, female, non-binary or other – is a choice, not a symptom of the demographics of an industry or organisation. 

This International Women’s Day, it’s time for business leaders to get real about the implicit gender bias lurking in their business. Being aware of the issue is a great first step, but unless action is taken, you could be unknowingly breaking the law. 

All organisations across Australia must come together to recognise that words matter when it comes to closing the gender gap. Together, we can close the book on bias for good.

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Reetta Makinen

Reetta Makinen

Reetta Makinen is a passionate people and culture expert with over 15 years of experience in high profile consulting and internal roles, helping organisations to unleash the power of their workforce and create a high-performance culture. Using her expertise in data, insights and strategy coupled with her pragmatic advice, she has successfully transformed numerous market-leading organisations and their people. As people and culture officer at We Are Unity, Reetta is driven by her purpose to help people challenge their self-perceptions and unlock their full potential.

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