Today is International Women's Day - a day when we celebrate the unique power, creativity, leadership, and love of women all around the world. Having worked in social justice and equity my entire career, I’ve noticed that every time a moment is dedicated to a specific group of people there are people that ask “why?” or “why not my group?” The answer is that the group we are celebrating has historically been oppressed in our hearts and our systems. That’s why this year’s theme of #BreakTheBias resonates with so many of us. To create equity, we must dismantle the biases in our hearts and our systems. Today, my collaborators and I will identify common biases and then, I will celebrate these women in order to humanize us in your hearts and our systems.
Almost a decade ago, after I presented a statewide prison industry analysis to a local leader, he turned to my male boss and said, “And she has brains too!”
It was said with such genuine surprise that my heart stopped in its tracks. This is the comment that best sums up the bias I’ve experienced all my life and, most painfully, in my professional life collaborating for equitable, inclusive, thriving communities. In my assessment, this comes from two places – 1) the objectification of women whether you’re presenting in a power suit or out for a walk in gym clothes and 2) the belief that you can’t radically love people marginalized by society and understand how the economy/ business/ politics/ (insert other traditionally male-dominated field here) works.
The bias that I want to see broken is that women are just adorable, bleeding hearts with no brains.
Reflecting on the biases that I need broken made me reach out to others to find out which biases need to be broken in their industries for all women to be valued for their authentic selves. Reading and listening to the voices of so many incredible people answer this question, with passion and frustration in their voice, made me resolute in my desire to amplify the voices that we often stifle.
“It’s really brought up a lot of things within me – discomfort, feeling almost caged by the dynamics within the patriarchy… I’ve been so conditioned in it to be quiet that I feel very uncomfortable to even say my experience,” Leah Bateman reflected as she prepared to discuss the biases within the artificial intelligence (AI) and health & wellness industries.
One non-profit founder, Andrea Gonzalez, told me about an encounter with a politician in which she was presenting the work of her organization, Volunteers in Colombia, with a male board member. The response she received felt like a “you’re cute and it’s cute what you’re doing here, but…” and then he turned to the board member to “talk business.” She felt like screaming, “I’m the founder!” Yet, she also knows too well the feeling that they will cheer for you as long as you’re cute and agreeable, but as soon as you speak up and say something that challenges them, you’re a bitch. She believes women have internalized this belief enough that if they see other women succeeding it can’t be because they were their authentic self. Then, instead of cheering fellow women on for navigating the patriarchy, we tear them down – we are seen as each other’s competition instead of each other’s co-conspirators.
The bias that Andrea wants to see broken is that women have value until they speak their truth.
The bias that Nadia Ali wants to see broken is that women can’t be taken seriously.
“Unless we are effective at breaking down the patriarchy and the misogyny that is built in [to gender roles], women have the weight of that and it then becomes difficult for a lot of women to have to ward off the bullshit before they can actually exercise their brilliance,” says Zara Green whose industry focuses on personal development, archetypes, and relationships. The extra energy it takes to change people’s perceptions that you’re just the pretty face to welcome them, the note-taker, or the hostess adds up.
The bias that Zara wants to see broken is the lie of gender roles.
The bias that Nicky Smutny wants to see broken is that women aren’t bread winners.
Once Leah dove into those suppressed observations of her industry she quickly noted that the chatbots and avatars in AI products are nearly always women. She referred to studies examining the gender bias in bot design and its perpetuation of those same destructive gender roles that Zara mentioned. “We’re still, now, facing this dynamic where women serve, men lead,” says Leah. For example, even when she was the lead pre-sales consultant, she would explain something about how the product worked and then people (usually men) would defer to her head of sales (who was a man) for validation. She believes this type of dismissal means that, sometimes, when women come into leadership roles, they feel they have to adopt masculine qualities – as in archetypal masculine qualities – and then go too far the other way and that doesn’t help either.
As someone building a health & wellness app, Leah is squarely in two male-dominated fields – technology and entrepreneurship. Being in the health & wellness industry also means that her body has become her “shop front.” And, as we learned in my Global MBA while preparing to pitch entrepreneurial ideas (and Leah reminded me), people buy people. Leah lamented that “when I try and sell my app to the investors, I feel like I can have the best product in the world, but I feel like if I don’t look a way that is attractive to them, they won’t buy from me.” This is because she has experienced throughout her life that “people buy men based on what they say and social play – power dynamics, whereas people buy women based on their sexuality combined with a softness.”
The bias that Leah wants to see broken is that women’s worth lies beneath the male gaze.
Being in the banking and finance industry, Mary Soldano is familiar with leadership roles being disproportionately held by men. This certainly has an impact on what qualities are deemed “appropriate for leadership” and Mary noted that women have gotten a reputation for being emotional. However, Mary believes that being emotional is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Emotions are a force for good. I think if we are tapping into our emotions, we also are able to read other people really well. That means we have strong emotional intelligence and work well in teams. Being able to read others, read a room, connect with them on a more human level, you’re earning their trust,” Mary explains. It doesn’t take a Harvard Business article for most of us to know that “one of a leader’s most critical responsibilities is fostering an environment of trust.”
The bias that Mary wants to see broken is that emotions are a sign of weakness.
Together, we want all women to be valued for their authentic selves.
Thank you to my incredible collaborators:
Leah Bateman is the CEO & Founder of Anima Hub Ltd which provides holistic health and wellness optimization technologies. She is also a health & wellness instructor with an infectious laugh and a zest for life.
Andrea Gonzalez is the Founder of Volunteers in Colombia which is actively working to advance gender equality through boxing, English, leadership, and entrepreneurship classes in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Medellin called La Honda. She’s a fellow brainy, bleeding heart.
Nadia Ali is the Founder of Idea Labs which advances the core values of Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity in Action (IDEA) in the workplace through training, leadership coaching and organizational strategy. She is also an avid gourmet (if you as me) cook based in Boulder, Colorado.
Zara Green is an author, speaker, and trainer in personal growth and resiliency development. She is one of the most reflective, wise, and magnetic women I have met. Zara is also currently falling in love with Medellín.
Nicky Smutny has a passion for education and helping students realize that learning is lifelong through her roles as a middle school English teacher and part-time graduate school teacher in Baltimore. When not in the classroom, she enjoys spending time outdoors hiking trials or gardening.
Mary Soldano is a national US Small Business Administration (SBA) lender with a heart for immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs fueled by her connections to Haiti. She shoots it to you straight, practices radical hospitality, and is an avid runner.
A special thank you to Felipe Rendon for his behind-the-scenes support.