Breaking bias

Australia was recently ranked overall 50th in the global gender gap (including 70th in ‘economic participation and opportunity’ and 99th in ‘health and survival’, but equal 1st in ‘educational attainment’). But while gender remains an issue worth discussing, our discussion needs to move beyond ‘women’ and consider complex structures and practices of power and equity. An article in yesterday’s Guardian by Sisonke Msimang argues that white women’s voices and anger are now being presented as central and as relatable, while the voices and stories of “Aboriginal women, women in hijab, women whose skin is far ‘too’ dark, and women who live on the wrong side of town; who can’t go to university and who will never report from parliament or file stories in newsrooms” are ignored. She adds that “Black women have pioneered the landscape of courage. … everywhere you look there are Black women who continue to be punished for loudly wearing their anger.”

As I reflect on the IWD 2022 theme of ‘break the bias’ I continue to consider how to acknowledge my own biases and privileges, and seek to understand the ways in which I help or hinder the project of diversity, inclusion and equity. I know that posting a blog post, photo or hashtag does little to address existing biases and their impacts on groups and individuals. I know that action and advocacy are needed in micro and macro contexts, and that sometimes appropriate action might be to speak less, take up less space, or question my own way of being in the world. I am proud of edited books such as Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (which features 19 women out of 25 authors) and Flip the System Australia, but know these are imperfect in their attempts to share a diverse range of voices.

The following blog post is on the WomenEd website as part of a suite of worldwide reflections for International Women’s Day 2022.

Source: @PIRO4D on pixabay

Each year, International Women’s Day is surrounded by questions as to why the day is needed. Yet a dig into data from any country shows that gender equity is far from a reality. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequities, as this UN policy brief and this UN technical briefattest. There has been an increase in unpaid domestic and caring duties often taken up by women, an increase in gender-based violence, a decline in the availability of reproductive health services, and lack of women’s representation in pandemic planning response.

The 2022 International Women’s Day theme is ‘Break the Bias’. But how do we ‘break’ bias when it’s unconscious, unacknowledged, or invisible? With so much complexity in the social world, accepting stereotypes, tropes, and assumptions about gender can make the world a simpler place with less cognitive load, easier judgments, and faster decision making. But left unchallenged, biases can block, hinder, and harm individuals and groups in society and in organisations.

The education world should look at how bias might be influencing school communities and students’ experiences of learning, living, and being in the world. In schools, sometimes the racial, ethnic, ability, sexuality, and gender diversity of the staff does not match the diversity of the student and parent community. Sometimes there is a lack of diversity in the community, or in the teaching or leadership staff. Conscious and unconscious biases of those overseeing staff recruitment and promotion can influence who is recruited, who is promoted, and who is overlooked. Biases of educators can affect response to student behaviour.

The questions we ask of ourselves and of others can help us to understand our own biases, to challenge the biases of others, and to encourage different ways of being and behaving. In a recent conversation with Jacob Easley II on my podcast, The Edu Salon, he challenged educators to take the time to explore their professional identities, beliefs, and purpose. He suggests that a place to start is with the question of why a person is entering the teaching profession: “Is it really to work with certain types of students, and not others, those who are more like me, and not those who are different from me?” This is something we should all ask ourselves. How do we respond (to a student, parent or colleague) when someone is not ‘like me’?

We can break open, or splinter bias, if we ask good questions. How about: Do we like to teach those students mostly like ourselves? To what social issues do we draw our organisation’s attention? What and who do we ignore or pay little attention to? Who is visible, celebrated, and recognised? Who is ignored or ridiculed? Who do students see ‘out in front’ at assemblies and events? Who do the school community see in middle and senior leadership?

Do we hire mostly people like ourselves, or do we seek to recruit a diverse workforce? To whom (if at all) do we offer flexible work options? While it may seem fair to apply the same decision-making framework for all people, aiming for meritocracy can perpetuate existing advantage. Is it more equitable to consider the varying needs and barriers of individuals, and to seek to tackle those barriers on a needsbasis? What is our approach to a situation with which we are unfamiliar or to someone whose experiences and perspectives are vastly different from our own? Do we engage in uncomfortable conversations? Do we dismiss or seek to understand concerns?

We can ask these questions of ourselves and others. From there, here’s what else I think we can do.

  1. Interrogate our responses. Be ok with not knowing, with learning, discomfort, and respectful challenge. Be willing to listen and to learn. Work to identify biases in ourselves and our organisations, and the barriers and inequities they create.
  2. Anchor ourselves in our values. Be brave enough to know what kind of individual and what kind of organisation we aspire to be. ‘The community won’t accept this without resistance,’ is not a good enough reason to remain stagnant on issues of equity, social justice, diversity, and meaningful inclusion.
  3. Educate and advocate. Stand up. Support. Resist. For example, when someone is critiqued for their cultural dress or accent, speak out. When someone is not being considered for a role or promotion, question why or point to attributes and experience that may have been ignored.
  4. Implement practices and structures that support mitigating bias, such as transparent and consistent recruitment processes with diverse representation across the decision makers, thoughtful leave policies (including flexible and generous parental leave and carer’s leave), options for flexible working where possible, and an organisational culture in which staff are trusted and professional expectations take into account a diversity of life responsibilities.

We all have influence, and we all have a responsibility to take bias seriously and to engage with its realities and ramifications, even and especially when those biases work in our individual favour. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught me, it’s that we need to work for the greater good over the individual good.

This year’s IWD pose reflects ‘break the bias’.

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