The impact of bias in women’s lives — Lionesses of Africa

by Lionesses of Africa Operations Department

“The pen has been in their hands…” – Jane Austen.

We have recently been drawn to the brilliant book by the award-winning author, Caroline Criado Perez, entitled INVISIBLE WOMEN: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, ‘IW’ (here). We assumed it would contain many of the statistics we have seen in the world of finance (such as only 2% of VC funding going to US Start ups in 2021 and 82% to all-male founding teams here and not much better in Africa where there is a far greater ratio of women entrepreneurs to male). Therefore, we were pleasantly surprised to note that this book deals very much with the mundane, our day-to-day lives and how bias, indeed any bias (unconscious or otherwise), makes a  huge difference in the long run (as any Casino knows too well). However, as we shall show through her investigations and other studies, this is far from mundane, instead deadly serious and is something we all must take very seriously indeed for our businesses and most importantly, our employees.

Bias that, for example, creates the situation whereby “…women from lower socio-economic backgrounds are 25% more likely to suffer a heart attack than men in the same income bracket.” Or “…in 2016 the British Medical Journal reported that young women were almost twice as likely as men to die in hospital.” See what we mean by this being ‘far from mundane’?

And as Perez continues to show, processes that should be gender-neutral are anything but, such as:

  • letters of recommendation within a hiring process and strengthens the ‘glass ceiling’ – confirmed by MIT finding that women were disadvantaged by ‘usual departmental hiring processes’, and that ‘exceptional women candidates might very well not be found by conventional departmental search committee methods

  • teaching evaluations at Universities that leave women behind.

  • Computer programming, which was originally done by women (yes!) (see the book ‘Hidden Figures’ about the inspirational women of Nasa here that was then turned into a wonderful film), a very female role everywhere as shown in an article in Cosmopolitan in the 1960’s, here.

Then, for all the talk that STEM subjects are not attractive for women, instead it is shown that “female students perform better in science when the images in their textbooks include female scientists.” Not a surprise, we all need role models – see for yourself and take a moment to search for female images within our childrens’ science book – they are just not there, (ok perhaps one photo of Marie Curie). Role models being absolutely essential, yet a tiny fraction of banknotes and stamps across the globe have famous women on them. If you ignore the recently departed Queen Elizabeth II who had an advantage as Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth, the number of female role-models shown can be counted on one hand.

Women also have extra concerns such as ‘trip-chaining’. Trip-chaining is where one has one or more stops in a round trip, so drop off kids at school – go to work – take an elderly relative to the doctor – visit the supermarket – then head for home….and these are not insignificant differences – “…three times more likely than men to take a child to school and 25% more likely to trip-chain” in Europe. In Africa? No surprise, sadly no data. Given women have greater ‘non-work’ work, or responsibilities, so they are also far more likely to use public transport, something that when times are tough, and budgets are tight, Governments tend to start to cut.

The problem is that all of this pushes up the amount of hours a woman works each week and when studies in the West show that one should not work more than 40 hours a week – again this is assuming that all this extra work that women do, does not count, they regularly work over 40 hours a week.

“…such hours for female workers led to consistent and ‘alarming increases’ in life-threatening diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Women’s risk of developing these diseases started to rise when they worked more than forty hours per week. If they worked for an average of sixty hours per week for over thirty years, their risk of developing one of these diseases tripled…women (in particular women under fifty-five) [also] have worse outcomes than men following heart surgery.” But why is this? One reason is that women following surgery “…tend to go right back into their caregiver roles, while men were more likely to have someone to look after them…[indeed] single women recovered better from heart attacks than married women – particularly when put alongside a University of Michigan study which found that husbands create an extra seven hours of housework a week for women [Ok, tell us something we don’t know! – Ed.].

In a very interesting Marie Claire article (here) titled: “Women Are Dying Because Doctors Treat Us Like Men” they show clearly the extra dangers encountered by women every time they go to hospital, purely because “…physicians have…assumed they can diagnose and treat both genders the same way…In fact, a 2000 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged mid-heart-attack. Most often, that’s because doctors fail to recognize women’s symptoms, which can differ widely from men’s.” – which of course are the symptoms most discussed, indeed, the only one’s discussed until recently, in medical text books – the classic chest pain we all know about – “…instead, 71 percent of women have flu-like symptoms,” ahead of a heart attack!

There are also many diseases and conditions that are alarmingly more prevalent among women, and medical science has not discovered why. Women are up to four times more likely to have migraines and chronic fatigue, three times more likely to be diagnosed with autoimmune disorders, and twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and depression. Another puzzling finding: Nonsmoking women are three times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmoking men…” …we could go on, but it is just too depressing.

So we have the gender bias against, that stops career progression or even getting the job in the first place; then lower pay and less chance of promotion if we get the job; being pushed out of roles that traditionally were female run, such as computer programming; extra housework; the extra dropping off of kids; the extra looking after an elderly relative, and now increased illness and potential for death, and we have not even touched on the low investigation and research into the Menstruation cycle and Menopause (see what happens when 50% of the population struggle to rise up in University research?!).

So how do we do progress?

Apart from being stronger at the doctor’s surgery when they tell us just to go home and “it’ll pass”, it seems mostly by taking more part-time work and that of course is paid less, generally does not have flexible hours and results in women working below their skill level.

…and one wonders why only 8% of the USA Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.

All of this leads to our great fear as we previously wrote (here), that this is simply going to get worse as these biases, unconscious or otherwise, are fed into the “algorithm-driven [process, which] is set to get worse, because there is every reason to suspect that this bias is being unwittingly hardwired into the very code to which we’re outsourcing our decision-making.” I.W.

How does that impact us as we run our businesses (and note, we are not here discussing the huge amount of bootstrapping our incredible membership have had to endure – that for a later article!)?

One of the well-known aspects of female-run businesses (apart from the fact they are better investment bets than their male run counterparts, yet constantly miss out on funding, see here – DOH! This is such a difficult subject to avoid as you can tell!), is that along with being large supporters of their local communities, these tend to also employ far more women in their teams. Possibly this is to do with the fact that as we saw from our great Lioness Data Division and their brilliant ‘South African Women Entrepreneurs Job Creators Survey Report’ here, so many Lionesses set up a business to create a job for themselves and so know from experience just how difficult it is to find a job as a woman – yet know just how damn good they are!

With the world in a sorry place currently. War in Europe impacting food and fuel costs, droughts, floods and famine becoming seasonal in various parts of Africa. With schooling for our children becoming ever more expensive in books and clothing. With unregulated Lenders feeding on so many. With many women having that nagging feeling that something is not quite right with their bodies, yet cannot persuade their Doctor that it needs deeper investigation – which in turn means far more trips to the Doctor, possibly with second opinions –  so our employees are facing a seemingly never ending amount of worries that are just growing and growing.

Is it therefore any wonder that ‘Impostors Syndrome’ is such a female centric issue? “It is crucial to remember that women are not born feeling less-than. But if you are continually treated as though you are, you eventually internalise it. And this is not merely a synonym for low confidence – impostor syndrome is the logical outcome of a world that was never designed for women to be successful.” (Guardian newspaper here).

Imposter syndrome can inhibit productivity and seriously limit an individual’s career progression. Self-doubt can also hold a highly-qualified person back from taking the chances that propel them forward,”  according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester’s business school (here).

So what can we do?

Being aware of all of these extra issues, worries and concerns is certainly a start. Make your work place a fun place to be (none of us know what is going on outside of work). If an employee needs to leave early, see if there is some way you can find out why so that you can possibly assist. Is it a Doctor’s visit? Is it a child or elderly relative who is sick?

Think of extra help for your employees… Speak to the other businesses in the area. If this is an industrial zone, perhaps club together for a local kindergarten in one of the local warehouses. Check the bus routes to and from your factory, perhaps even look to a shared company minivan – chance for ‘trip-chaining’? How about finding a female Doctor that will take on your employees? These are all far more valuable initial steps than a company ‘team-building’ exercise which some of your employees always seem to miss (because of their extra home responsibilities).

Within the work environment – do some have to work a second job in the evenings? Perhaps look at how you can give them more responsibility within your company rather than them having to work through the night elsewhere. Encourage your “employees to remind themselves of their achievements and recent ‘wins’ so they “can put [their] feelings of self-doubt into context” (here).

Please keep things simple – not because you do not believe in your employees capabilities, but because you do not want some to slip through the gap created by not having the courage to say: “I do not understand, please explain.” Encourage your middle management and practice it yourself to translate difficult subjects into easy to understand points and messages. Those who truly understand their subject within your management team will find this easy, those who can’t will be shown up and then you know and can deal with that (sometimes the very core of what is a ‘bad manager’ is a lack of understanding within themselves). Difficult words and complex sentences may have a place in nuclear science, but in business one should be able to break down all that you do into simple processes and explanations.

Cut that management speak. No one cares that you got an MBA if you cannot lead… As they say, ‘Theory and Practice are exactly the same, except in practice…’ – just ask Liz Truss, now the UK’s ex-PM  (er, did we say that out loud?).

As Anne Elliot said in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story . . . the pen has been in their hands.” The more we are aware of this, the more we can understand and improve the lives of our female employees. The better for us, for our employees, for our  communities and for the world.

Stay safe.

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