The issue with gender equality in workforces today is primarily the result of what researchers call ‘second- generation bias’. It is not overt or malicious, but it is why men don’t feel they are being biased, and why women may not feel explicitly or deliberately disadvantaged ... even if both are true on some level.
Gone are the days (mostly!) when it was acceptable to reject women for jobs because they were deemed unsuitable for the role. Explicit bias is no longer the norm – it’s not completely gone mind you, but it’s certainly not tolerated in most corporate Australian workplaces.
However, in its place is its even more subtle and insidious cousin – second-generation bias. The difference between the two is dangerous, because one feels malicious, and one has no real feeling at all (and that’s the dangerous part). First generation (explicit) bias was experienced as something ‘in your face’; Second generation (implicit) bias is simply experienced as being ‘in the space’. It’s not aggressive; it’s not from one person to another; it just is. This makes it feel like prejudice and bias doesn't exist ‘here at our workplace’.
But the chances are that it does still exist. Bias is now stuck in the policies, structures, systems and societal expectations handed down from previous generations. It’s kind of like baking a cake in an oven that has baked-on food grime on the walls from all the meals past. The cake looks fine when it comes out of the oven, but it just smells a little bit ‘off’. Something is not quite right.
Second-generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual. Rather, it creates a context—akin to “something in the water”—in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential. The key to addressing second-generation bias is to first acknowledge that it is still bias, and it still exists. And, it's still exerting a pull as strong as explicit bias, even if it feels less aggressive and somewhat benign. If it wasn’t, we would have greater gender diversity in leadership roles already.
As Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, Chief of Army said in the report, ‘In the eye of the beholder – Avoiding the merit trap’, “If we believe that men and women are equally able in a company or a country, then we should be expecting a 50/50 outcome. If we don't get that, then there is either bias or constraints to natural merit”.
Second-generation bias is setting a new kind of trap for women in the workplace. We need to accept that our colleagues can still be ‘nice’ and perpetuating structural bias at the same time. They probably don't even realise it, just like women probably don’t really feel it. The sooner we get on the front foot and clean out those dirty ovens, the better it will be for all of us. No-one wants to eat a cake that smells like nachos.
Read more in Anneli Blundell's white paper 'Do women really need to help to progress?'