In these times of focus on gender balance, a recent story brought that age-old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ to mind. In this case it’s all about clothes. And most likely a decent dose of unconscious bias...
One of my contacts is a vet. Actually a very specialised vet, in global demand on the conference circuit for her pioneering work on spinal cord regeneration in dogs.
She researches, teaches, and practises at a University, where she is Professor of Neurology, and is a significant part of the reason veterinary students apply to study there.
During lockdown over the summer, all day long she’s been wearing the multicoloured scrubs worn by the technicians at the university. They’re far more comfortable to wear than the usual green surgical-style scrubs, which they normally wear when examining animals. The clinic's COVID-19 protocols mean she doesn’t physically see the animal’s owners when treating animals, so there’s been no need to don the uniform used by the specialist vets at the university.
Fast forward to the first fews weeks' intake of new students. While out and about within the veterinary campus - and still wearing her multicoloured scrubs - new students have been asking her to do all sorts of menial tasks because they think she’s a techie. Whoops…
Now, she takes all this in with very good humour, but she has been quite surprised that people who’ve specifically applied to study at this university - meaning they will certainly be learning with her - identify more with the uniform than the person. I hasten to add that during this time there hasn't been a protocol for wearing masks, so her face has been fully visible.
Would the same happen if the international expert inside the outfit were male? I don’t know for sure, but sadly, as many of you reading this may have, I have a sneaky suspicion…
No doubt word will soon get out among the students that the techie they just asked to go get a sample was in fact none other than the world leading expert they'll be learning from.
This makes me wonder what's being done in schools right now to support gender balance in the workplace. When we supported EDF Energy's move to create an inclusive, diverse culture, some of the work involved going to schools, and showing female students interested in STEM subjects the career possibilities in the energy and construction sectors. These interactive fairs continue to today, and are a great example of what needs to be done earlier on in eduction to support better workplace gender balance in the future. They're one of the ingredients that's also likely to influence the unconscious biases that develop as we mature.
If you have an example of something being done in education now that either consciously or unconsciously impacts on better gender balance at work, it would be great to know in the comments section. Clearly we still need lots of help in this important area.