Gender bias most certainly did play a role in the demise of Julia Gillard. Even if it was unconscious. Unconscious bias is innate within each and every one of us. Our instinct will often seek out people we assume are similar to us (and Julia was different on so many fronts, to both men and women). Unconscious bias is an attitudinal biases about gender, age, race, etc, that we are unaware we have and are unaware we act upon. Unconscious bias results in people who are perceived to be ‘different’ receiving frequent negative ‘micro-messages’ at work as a cumulative pattern of behaviour. These are subtle workplace behaviours that devalue, demotivate or exclude people. The senders are often unaware they are doing it, but the recipients feel and recognise the behaviour as non-inclusive. Hardly surprising that Julia herself felt the need to raise the gender issue.
Last week online publication, The Conversation, made the point that for people of a more conservative bent, a “real” female prime minister would be one who shares the everyday experiences of millions of Australian families – kids, grocery bills, the school run – and uses this understanding to make government more responsive and accommodating of their needs. Here again, Gillard has failed to meet the mark. Her policy choices have generally reflected a focus far beyond the domestic sphere. The fact that the electorate demands more than this from Gillard simply because she is female – that she also be either an evangelist or an everywoman – shows just how skewed our perspectives on power and gender still are.
The scary thing is that a lot of what has played out has happened without a high level of awareness for many, it is simply their unconscious bias running wild. Julia Gillard was simply different and many people could not reconcile it their hard-wired internal perspective on the world.
For a great example of unconscious bias the following extract from ‘Lean In – Women, Work and The Will to Lead’ by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook says it all;
In 2003, Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They started with a Harvard Business School case study about real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. The case described how Roizen became a successful venture capitalist by using her “out going personality…and vast personal and professional network (that) included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.” Flynn and Anderson then polled the students about their impressions of Heidi or Howard. The students rated Heidi as equally competent, which made sense since “their” accomplishments were completely identical.
Yet while students respected Heidi and Howard, Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” The same data with a single difference – gender – created vastly different impressions.
This experiment supports what research has already clearly shown: success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.
Unconscious bias is something that touches all us, but if there is some upside, it must surely be that Julia Gillard actually made it to PM in the first place.