Gender Balance & Bias – Part 1

In this three-part series about gender roles and biases, we’ll start with a brief explanation of when gender biases begin, move on to describe how they manifest in corporate America today, and finally discuss steps and measures that can be, and are being, taken to combat them.

Early Childhood

We cannot adequately tackle the topic of gender bias in the workplace without first addressing when these biases first manifest in childhood. Children begin to learn and reinforce their notions about gender roles and expectations very early in childhood, through popular childhood literature, societal patterns, and at school.

Fairy Tales

In her paper entitled Gender Bias Faced by Girls and What We Can Do: One Student’s Perspective, Vivian Huang speaks of her childhood love for fairy tales. These beloved stories have been told time and again and have been portrayed in thousands of children’s books and in numerous stage and screen adaptations. As an adult, Huang began to question “the images and messages conveyed in my childhood fairy tales. Should girls always be slim, light-skinned, and beautiful? Should girls always be docile and submissive? Should girls always be waiting for rescue, rather than fighting by themselves? Is marrying the prince the best way for the princess to ‘return the favor’?”

Many of us were regaled with these stories as children, and we continue to pass them on. Is it any wonder boys and girls start out with strong ideas about male and female roles in society?

Societal Patterns

Children also soak in beliefs and expectations from the patterns they observe in their environment. For instance, they soon notice that the majority of their school teachers, nurses, dental hygienists, and office staff are predominantly female (Top Resume), and that police officers, builders, and doctors (to name a few) are usually male. These gender patterns have a marked influence on children’s feelings about what they are expected to do, and what they can and can’t do, with their futures (Study International).

Gender Expectations at School

Although they are improving, gender stereotypes in schools are still problematic. For instance, although girls have proven their ability to keep up with boys in mathematics and science at every age, they are still often steered away from these fields as early as when they are in elementary school (Education Next). 

Studies show that other aspects of school culture also bolster gender stereotypes:

  • Boys are called upon more often to participate in discussions than girls.
  • Girls are frequently arbitrarily assigned tasks like note-taking rather than active participation in experiments or activities.
  • If a boy doesn’t get the answer to a question right, the teacher will re-phrase it and give him another chance.  Girls simply “get it wrong” and the teacher moves to the next student.
  • Teachers often use gender as the defining factor in separating students into groups or teams.
  • Teachers tend to expect and reinforce different behavior norms between boys and girls, i.e., girls are expected to be calm and neat, and they are punished more harshly than boys when they don’t conform to that expectation.

Childhood is a training ground for adulthood, so it stands to reason that the beliefs and mindsets children adopt carry over from the classroom to the boardroom.

In the next article, we will discuss the state and ramifications of gender bias in the workplace today.