Which biases have been broken and which still need to be smashed?
The inspirational stories and insightful interviews in our Wonder Women book include many examples of the bias, stereotypes and discrimination women in marketing encountered over the years and we’ve posted a number of blogs on the Wonder Women website which highlight both overt bias and unconscious bias together with the actions we could take to recognise and address it.
This year the International Women’s Day theme is #breakthebias, so we came up with the idea of interviewing a group of formidable women born in the 1940s and 1950s to understand the biases that have been broken and those that are still holding strong. These women have the unique perspective over the decades of their own experiences as well as those of their daughters, daughter-in-laws, grandchildren – and their sons.
Here are the insights that our discussions revealed:
The importance of parenting – girls and boys should be treated equally in the home
Strong mothers played a vitally important role in changing expectations of what their daughters were likely to aim for in their lives. In many instances their mothers had had to settle for a life of domesticity, with the man being the major breadwinner and head of the household and the bias being towards the boys in the family following in their father’s footsteps. But the mothers didn’t want their daughters to follow in their footsteps and battled for a better future for their daughters by ensuring they got a good education.
During our interviews, we listened to some fascinating stories about strong mothers trying to ensure their daughters got better opportunities than they had:
“I was the eldest of 5 children, 3 girls and 2 boys. We were brought up on a farm in Wales. It was just accepted that the boys would run (inherit) the farm, so my mother decided we girls should have a good education and we all went to boarding school – even though we didn’t have much money. She was ahead of her time – she didn’t want us to just marry a local farmer.”
“My father, who was a headmaster, died when I was 7 and my mother was a real feminist because she had to be. She had to earn enough money to keep us going – and that was hard. She was an art teacher at the same school I was at. It was expected I would go to university.”
“I was born in central London when the bombs were dropping. My mother was a very strong catholic so I went to a catholic school run by nuns. When we moved from Willesden to Pinner when I was 9, I carried on going to my school in Willesden because it was a good school. I would walk to the station, sit on a ladies only carriage on the Metropolitan Line, then walk ¾ mile to school.”
“I come from North Yorkshire and both my parents were in domestic service. They saw how the other half lived and my mother worked really hard throughout her lifetime to earn the money to have a better life. I was quite clever so my mother expected me to do well.”
Not all, but many fathers tended to be more distant from the aspirations mothers had for their daughters, and at worst they openly reinforced bias and stereotypes.
“I did my A levels and was offered a place at London to read oriental studies, “What the fucking hell do you want to do that for?” exclaimed my father! So I had to do a quick Pitman’s course in shorthand and typing. His view was that I didn’t need to go to university – it was a waste of time.”
In turn, the women we talked to wanted better for their own daughters and ensured that their sons and daughters were treated equally and given the same opportunities. However, this was not always supported by the wider family and society.
“I have two daughters and a son, and my mother offered to pay for private education for my son only. We turned it down.”
When we talked about their own children, it was fascinating to hear about the changes in family life and expectations. All their daughters and daughter-in-laws had successful careers, children and supportive husbands – it’s not all perfect as we well know from the statistics that reflect wider society and the world, but it is moving in the right direction.
What actions can we take to #breakthebias?
Let’s all start with addressing bias and stereotypes in the home. Let’s think of parenting as a dual responsibility and ensure we have equality in the home. That means that:
- Men have to step up to their parental and domestic responsibilities
- Women have to relinquish some of the control they have in the home and with motherhood – don’t accept the excuse that men don’t do a good enough job – teach them how if necessary
- Parents need to treat daughters and sons in the same way and tell them they deserve equal opportunity, recognition and rewards throughout life
- Celebrate and recognise the value of parents who want to be stay-at-home parents – stop women from saying ‘I’m just a stay-at home mum.’
We’re edging towards equality in education
For the women we interviewed a good education helped them towards greater confidence in themselves and a better life than their parents. Many went to an all-girls school, some went to university, some to teacher training, others to the famous Pitman’s short-hand and typing course.
Although there were opportunities for women in education, there was clearly very overt bias and very little guidance.
“My youngest sister was really good at school and went to Liverpool to study sciences. She wanted to do medicine and she was turned down. She found out that the reason she was turned down was because she was far too pretty to be a doctor – and that she was going to get married and she would have wasted 7 years of training. We were all very indignant. She ended up doing teacher training and worked for a long time in teaching – far longer than the 7 years she could have worked in medicine earning her training – and she would have been paid far more money.”
“I did sciences at A level and went to what is now known as King’s College university and did a degree in nutrition. I loved living in London and met my husband who was at Imperial. At the time Imperial was all blokes. Kings had more women.”
“At my school there was no encouragement from teachers – whether or not you went to university was dependent on your parents. Some of the girls went to teacher training college.”
“I decided I wanted to do medicine so took sciences at A level, but I didn’t get into medical school. I had no career guidance and no help from school. I probably chose the wrong subjects at A level – I much preferred languages.”
Massive progress has been made in breaking the bias in education and this is borne out by the statistics that show that 52% of graduates are now women. The equality in education has been achieved by women grasping the opportunity and, often, by working twice as hard as the men to get the top grades.
- This imbalance of more women than men graduating needs addressing by encouraging boys that to work as hard as girls in education to achieve better results. Boys can no longer get by on swagger and confidence – they need to put in the hard graft.
- There’s still bias in subject choices and opportunities, but this too is changing with more women going into medicine and law and succeeding in STEM subjects. We need to continue to offer the choices and encourage women to do whatever they want (and are good at).
Career opportunities for women have come along way, but there’s still a long way to go
The expectations and opportunities for women in the workplace have changed massively over the decades. In the 1950s (and still into the 1960s) there were three choices for women who wanted to escape domestic service, factory work or housewifery: nursing, teaching or secretarial. The limited careers advice they were given was totally bias and conformed to the stereotypical ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions.
Added to that many were expected to give up work when they got married, and most certainly when having children. There were no nurseries and only the very rich could afford expensive nannies, so the majority were left with no choice other than to give up or pause their careers.
“I left school at 16, went to France for a year, then did a quick secretarial course – as girls did in those days – and I got a job in the foreign office. Chaps from the foreign office came all the way to Wales to interview my referees – one was our bank manager, and one was a doctor (who was my uncle). I worked in a posh office in Pall Mall but was paid a pittance and lived in a girls’ hostel. After 6 months I got a job in public relations where I could earn twice as much, but my mother was devastated I left the foreign office. Then I became an air stewardess for 18 months but when I got married, I wasn’t allowed to stay on – that’s just the way it was and we just accepted it in those days.”
Husbands’ jobs almost always came first. Women would follow their husbands’ careers – wherever that might take them – the compromise would always be the women’s career.
“I went into teaching and got a good job at a higher education college teaching applied science. Then my husband came home and said, ‘Do you want to go to Sydney?’. I didn’t have a job, but went forth with my CV and got a job at a technical college. I didn’t have an appointment or an interview, I just walked in there and they needed help and I came out with a job. I could have got to head of department, but my husband’s job brought us back to the UK.”
“If you wanted a mortgage, they’d only take into account the husband’s salary. And invariably the man earned far more. In one way there was less pressure for women to work – it’s very different nowadays when often couples need both salaries to get and pay for a mortgage.”
“Although I felt there was equality at university, it changed in the workplace. My husband’s job always took priority – I never questioned it really. He was transferred to Bristol so we moved.”
“In our generation the men earned a lot more than we did. It was an economic decision. He could pay the mortgage and I couldn’t. End of story. Women are earning so much themselves that they can have more say.”
“My father started his own business in 1946 and my first job was when I was 12 doing the filing on a Saturday morning. I had a great job at the London Press Exchange on Fleet Street, but then moved out of London with my husband’s job and ended up as a sales office manager in Stroud. Two years after we were married my father offered my husband a sales manager job in his company – I was never considered – this was a bloke’s job – that’s how it was. Because I knew so much about the business I did get closely involved – I used to take my daughter into the office in her pram. The company thrived, got bigger and bigger and I ended up working full time, but because it was our own business I could take time off when I needed to. I had an office at home. That flexibility meant I could look after my daughters as well as work in the business.”
“I never thought of myself as a career woman, but I loved teaching.”
There was also clear bias it the workplace – and this is one area which seems to have hardly changed.
“It was not a female friendly environment. There was a lot of expectation to go to late meetings, a lot of drinking culture after work, a lot of hanky panky! That was 20 years ago and I still think that it’s difficult for women.”
Everyone agreed that massive progress has been made and cited examples of their daughters and daughter-in-laws having the opportunity to pursue the career they wanted and have much higher aspirations.
“When I look at my sons and their wives, things have changed a lot. My son’s wife is an HR Director at a bank and my son does at least half in the home and does it easily and happily. Working from home has made a massively positive difference to their lives as one of them is always at home now.”
“My daughter is an A&E consultant, and her husband is also a medic. They share the childcare and household responsibility, they work out their shifts so one of them can be at home. But she still has to fight her ground in the workplace – it’s traditionally been a man’s domain and it’s slow to change.”
“My daughter is an engineer and was doing really well, but a man got promoted above her. She tried pushing back, but then she left that company. She also tells me about a woman who is making things difficult – so it’s not just men,”
“We are making progress, women are more empowered and men are more accepting. When I look at my grandkids now they have a totally different attitude towards what girls and boys can do. It’s getting better, but it will still take time.”
“The men today do far more than our husbands ever did. That has changed.”
What actions can we take to #breakthebias?
I have written many blogs on breaking overt and unconscious bias in the workplace. Here are our top 5 tips to keep the momentum going and make sure we move forward:
- Build your resilience – don’t allow those small bias to get on top of you and break down your resolve to change things, (“When you start to fight back, men can’t help but throw out those lines to women – and that shrivels you up”). You need to be tough, but not to ignore.
- Call out the bias in the workplace (and anywhere else you see/hear it) – overt bias should always be called out and there are laws and HR policies which you can use to address these. However, a lot of the time people are unaware of their unconscious bias, so often a softer approach works more successfully – bring it to their attention, tell them why it’s wrong and ask them to change their language/behaviour. Watch out for your own unconscious bias too!
- Promote flexible working for women and men – this makes a massive difference for work/life balance as well as opportunities to progress your career in a way that works for you (whether you have kids or not). The pandemic has shown that remote and hybrid working can be successful – think productivity and outcomes.
- Ensure there’s equality in the home – every successful women I have spoken to talks about the importance of support in the home. In the old world, women employed other women to do childcare and household jobs, but that doesn’t really solve the problem. We need the men to take responsibility. Think parenting, not motherhood.
- Fight your corner – If you experience or witness bias, be brave and fight back. Fight for that pay-rise or promotion while you are pregnant, question why someone else has got the job instead of you. I often quote the example of the suffragettes vs. the suffragists. The suffragists were campaigning peacefully for the women’s vote for decades (and that was really important), but it wasn’t until the suffragettes started smashing windows in Oxford Street and fighting to ensure that the law changed.
We need to enable women to more easily return to the workplace after taking time out to care for children
When women choose (or have no choice but to do so) to take time out to care for young children, it was, in the past and still is now, very difficult to get back into the workplace. This is a bias that definitely has not yet been broken.
I have raised this in previous blogs, so it was interesting and enlightening to hear of the women’s experiences.
“Since having children, I haven’t been in paid employment anymore. I never really got myself off the ground again with going out to work. I’d been on all sorts of committees – charity committees, school committees, golf captain, secretary of the choral society. I was always busy and capable, and made money through stocks & shares, and managing some property rentals I inherited. I did try a couple of times to get back to work, but prioritising children got in the way. We need to do more to enable women to take time out and go back to work.”
Age and maturity for women is really empowering and the skills they have learnt through parenting are massively relevant to the workplace and leadership. We should recognise this.
It’s also hugely important to place value on the role that women play if they decide to stay at home to look after children (and elderly relatives). 80% of the unpaid work in the world is carried out by women – surely this is a massive bias that needs breaking?
Listening to the stories, it was fascinating to see how much has changed and how many more opportunities there are for women, but there’s still a long way to go and that it why this year’s #breakthebias theme for International Women’s Day is so relevant and important.
Wonder Women is working in collaboration with Amersham Museum to conduct more interviews with women across the generations to understand how we can #breakthebias. I’ll be writing more blog posts and the Museum will be logging the stories as part of their Living History project.