Gender bias in the workplace, defined as forms of discrimination against women that reflect the values and mind-sets of the men who created the settings and practices, is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. While many of these gender-biased mind-sets and practices are changing, Marisa Porges, writing for the New York Times, points out many interesting ways that the legacies of gender bias from the past are still impacting the present:
- NASA didn’t have enough space suits that fit female astronauts. Only a few days before the much-publicized first all-female spacewalk was to take place in April 2019, it had to be canceled because of the lack of space suits that fit women.
- Two years after Porges began flying jets for the navy, somebody noticed that the ejection seat on her jet was not designed for her five-foot-two-inch female frame. It had been designed and tested by and for only men, which increased the risk of major injury for a woman if she needed the safety equipment.
The legacies of gender discrimination are also present in small ways that affect the daily lives and careers of women. Porges notes that while women face many systemic barriers, such as wage gaps, family leave policies, and blocked career pipelines for women in underrepresented fields, the small legacies are also significant:
- Lack of adequate lactation rooms in most office buildings
- Antiquated office dress codes that require female employees to wear high heels
- The size of safety gear available for female astronauts
- Temperature settings in most workplaces, which are calibrated to men’s metabolic rates and are too cold for women
While Porges focuses on legacies of past gender discrimination reverberating in the present, new sources of gender discrimination are also concerning. Megan Specia writes about the broad gender disparities in the technology and artificial intelligence (AI) sectors, noted as problematic in a new Unesco study released in conjunction with the government of Germany and the Equal Skills Coalition. Specia reports that women are grossly underrepresented in AI, making up 12 percent of AI researchers and 6 percent of software developers in the field. The Unesco study states that “a lack of diversity within the industry . . . is reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.” The report states several alarming examples:
- Most virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa have female names, female voices, and often a submissive or flirtatious style. They also often have a “deflecting, lackluster or apologetic response” to insults, which provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products.
- Gender and racial biases have also been built into sexist hiring tools developed by Amazon and facial recognition technology that misidentifies black faces.
The report points out that “the more that [technology-enforced] culture teaches people to equate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants—and penalized for not being assistant-like.”
The absence of diversity in engineering teams that are overwhelmingly staffed by men means that gender bias continues to be perpetuated. Our whole culture needs to change and confront the multilayered problem.
Photo by Diego Gavilanez on Unsplash