Let’s start with a little bit about unconscious bias. Have you heard the story from the 1970s about the blind auditions behind a curtain? In short, back then, women made up only 5% of musicians in the top US orchestras. After questions were raised, the orchestras decided they would do blind auditions – where those auditioning would do so behind a curtain (a bit like a 1970s version of ‘The Voice’ but without Tom Jones, I guess). Alarmingly, those blind auditions doubled the number of women advancing to the next stage. This is what we call gender bias. Today’s figures determine around 30% of musicians in the top US orchestras are women. Alas, gender bias doesn’t stop at orchestras. It’s everywhere. In every industry.

The 1960s and 1970s are decades that can often merge into one historical memory, but they were actually incredibly different. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote:

“The 1960s were hopeful, the 1970s sour; the 1960s were about success, the 1970s about failure; the 1960s were sporadically violent; the 1970s pervasively violent.”

It’s sometimes thought that the 1970s were actually worse for sexism than in earlier decades because words like ‘sassy’, ‘feisty’, and ‘spritely’ came into play as ways to describe women who, if they were men, would be described as ‘leaders’. In fact, here’s a whole list of 25 words we mostly only use to describe women.

But the 1970s also brought with it a push for women’s liberation. Germaine Greer’s book ‘The Female Eunuch’ played a big role in the feminist movement as we know it today. The 1970s seen women drop the dismissive housewife stereotype, which long dominated the media, and the UN General Assembly made a resolution to observe International Women’s Day.

I don’t refer to myself as a feminist, but, whether you choose to observe it or not, sexism still exists, and I wanted to take a look at: whether casual misogyny has made sexism invisible, whether our unconscious biases have a play in this, and what can be done about it. As Maisie William’s put it:

“…We should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist’—and then everyone else is just human. You are either a normal person or a sexist.”

Not as fair as we think.

A survey done by Young Women’s Trust in 2016 showed that half of female HR directors and decision-makers thought their workplace was sexist, compared with only a quarter of males. Which, let’s face it, is part of the problem.


The survey goes on to detail that one in eight large employers admit sexual harassment goes unreported in their workplace. 63% of HR directors and decision-makers thought sexism still existed in most workplaces, increasing to 76% among female employers. Those are stats that shouldn’t be ignored and it’s somewhat concerning that this is still a topic of debate in this decade.

Surveys show that 75% of people voluntarily leave their jobs—they do this to quit their bosses, not their jobs. This isn’t down to sexism alone, but it plays a part. I can relate to this stat, I’ve left a few jobs in my career, and it’s been down to needing to quit the boss, not the job. Notice how I say ‘needing’—that’s intentional. It’s something I still regularly observe with those around me; the more I see it, the more it bothers me. “People leave managers not companies”, write the authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. Beyond a point, an employee’s primary need is less to do with money, and more to do with how they’re treated.

The problem among young women trying to do their jobs and advance their careers is that they are often faced with casual sexism and sexual harassment. What’s more saddening is the number of employers who are aware of it and don’t make the correct steps to change it. These figures by Young Women’s Trust are merely the tip of the iceberg—the Everyday Sexism Project found that 52% of women experienced unwanted behavior, be it groping, sexual advances, or inappropriate jokes.

Not all male managers are sexist, of course. There are excellent ones. But the problem is that they may be unaware of the sexism women are experiencing in their workplace or they are sweeping it under the carpet as ‘banter’. I’ve been in this situation and chose not to highlight it due to fear of what it would mean for my career, which is another problem seen way too often. I love a joke as much as the next person: I’m ridiculously sarcastic, not overly-sensitive to close-to-the-edge comedy, and I love a good laugh as much as the next person. But if, as a male, you’re making me the butt of your joke at the expense of sexism, I’m probably not going to be OK with that. If you’re a misogynist reading this, you’re probably thinking “How am I supposed to know if it’s sexist?”, all you need to do is ask yourself if what you’re saying would still be ‘funny’ if you were saying it to a man. There’s your answer.

Unconscious bias—a reason, but not an excuse.

Sexism has become normalized to the point where we often don’t notice it. Walking down the street and a guy whistles at you? That’s sexism. The guy whistling probably isn’t being intentionally offensive, and probably doesn’t even think he’s doing anything wrong. That’s unconscious bias.

Men can’t take all the shit. Women can also hold unconscious bias against their own gender. Double standards are so deeply embedded into our lives that we sometimes forget that women can too be sexist. I’ve witnessed this. Isn’t that a real shame? For example:

1.     Expecting your daughter to be polite, but it being OK for your son to be unruly and using phrases like “boys will be boys” is sexist.

2.     Expecting men to pick up a bill is sexist.

I suppose, you could say, we all have a little sexism in us. The more we are exposed to sexist attitudes, the more hardwired we become to be sexist. This goes as far back as our evolution, but the problem arises when we look at things like a) the career ladder, b) the gender pay gap, and c) sexual harassment. What’s the common denominator here? The workplace. The workplace has created an environment that’s made everyday sexism OK. Through refusal to admit, denial, fear of losing our jobs, and fear of being ignored, the workplace is a place where sexism festers and the more it festers, the less control we have over it.

Harvard conducted an unconscious bias test that has since been used by a number of businesses. Students were asked to read two case studies: one by Howard Roizen, and one by Heidi Roizen. They rated Howard as highly competent, effective, and someone they would like and be willing to work with. Heidi’s case study outlined identical details to Howard’s, but the same students found her competent and effective but said they wouldn't like her or want to work with her. Why? Nothing was different besides their names and genders. This is simply an unconscious bias in favour of men.

A science faculty were once asked to evaluate student application forms. The applications included the same details but were randomly assigned a male or female name. Male candidates were rated as much more competent and worthy of hiring than the identical female candidates. Just to reiterate, the details were the same for men and women. This is an unconscious bias in favour of men.

Women are constantly measured differently to male colleagues. Things like: “She’s too nice for this tough job” and “She has a young family, how will she cope in this demanding role?”, are things we have, wrongly, made gender specific. Hillary Clinton became a big case for this during her run for President in the States. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. Love her or hate her, Hillary’s ambition and tough demeanor made it acceptable to call her ‘cold’—these are traits that would be seen as ‘strengths’ for men. Meanwhile, the country voted for an openly sexist misogynist who was recorded saying sexual slurs. But, hey, that little woman Clinton was just too cold.

I’ve been in a situation where my manager, at the time, was a micro-manager. He was a bit of an arrogant know-it-all, who had little evidence of what he claimed to know. He would question my decisions and interfere with my work. He would tell me he wanted me to take initiative and be self-reliant, whilst also wanting me to check with him first; it was conflicted, to say the least. You get the idea, he wasn’t a ‘leader’. What was the problem? I think he definitely had an unconscious bias against women as leaders and just generally felt more comfortable with men, whilst felt it acceptable to talk down to women. But, truthfully, he just didn’t have the skills to lead. Those in higher management were very much aware of it. What happened? Nothing. Zero. Later, a male colleague of mine had a similar problem with his manager (by similar, I mean the same). Again, higher management were aware. What happened? Everything was done to make the situation easier for said male colleague. So why was my situation handled differently (actually it wasn’t handled at all)? Again, we go back to unconscious bias. The senior management probably just assumed I was being an ‘overly sensitive’ female and had the mentality of ‘a male made this complaint, so it must be true’. The awareness was all the more transparent when it was a male colleague who had the problem. The situation was handled.

I’ve also worked in a situation where I done the same job (and more) as male colleagues, albeit under a different title, and earned significantly less than them. These are prime examples of unconscious bias playing a part in workplace sexism. Some women debate whether this is actually conscious bias, meaning, some males are fully aware of their sexism and choose to be that way. I agree that probably does play a part too, but we call those people ‘arseholes’.

We all have unconscious biases. I have them. You have them. Men and women have them, young and old have them. Every ethnicity has them. Our experiences through every walk of life influence us and shape the biases we have. Many of the decisions we make are influenced, in some way, by our unconscious biases. We may think we are being fair or unbiased, but we are not.

So, what can we do about it?

Firstly, we (both men and women) need to stop being blind to the fact that there is still a very real barrier for women. We collectively have a role in removing that barrier, and it’s only when we admit to it being there, that we can work to removing it. That doesn’t mean simply agreeing that women actually do make great leaders or that gender equality is morally right. What we need is for men and women to commit to confronting sexism in a very active way; around the staff room table, at the water dispenser, at the pub. In no way should we ever make this about creating victims out of women or vilifying men (that in itself is sexist), but we do need to take personal responsibility for the parts we play—even if those parts are sometimes unintentional.

The major stumbling block for gender equality is unconscious bias. That’s not to say nothing can be done about it. In the workplace, if companies stop ignoring and start addressing, positive results will follow.

If you want to do something about it, you should check out your own unconscious biases with this Harvard test. Then, you should face up to those results and challenge them.

Or in the words of British journalist, Mary Ann Seighart:

“It requires a bit of work. But surely it’s worth it? Sexism is as vile as racism, and shouldn’t have a place in modern society. So next time you assume that a woman isn’t competent until she proves otherwise, slap yourself on the wrist, realise that it’s your reptilian brain talking and make a conscious decision to act like a 21st-century person, not a caveman – or woman.”

“Privilege is not knowing you’re hurting others and not listening when they tell you.” DaShanne Stokes