Do We Have Unconscious Bias About Gender and Work?

Do We Have Unconscious Bias About Gender and Work?

“Your result is described as a slight automatic association for male with career and female with family”. For a man who describes himself as a feminist and has spent most of his professional life working on gender equality, my result on the Gender-Career Implicit Association Test (that I invite you to take) was devastating and eye-opening. And I am not alone: 75% of the people who have taken the test show the same bias to some degree.

The truth is stereotypes and gender norms have a stronger influence than we think, and this is especially true when talking about labor markets and professional careers.

Women are still more likely to work in lower-paying sectors and occupations—and this occupational segregation explains part of the observed wage gap between men and women.  Pioneering research for the U.S. suggests that gender differences in occupations and sectors are in fact the most important measurable factor explaining gender wage gaps, but much more research on this topic needs to be done in developing countries.

Looking for some answers

To what extent are women’s choices of occupations and sectors the result of a conscious choice of jobs that offer them more flexibility to combine work with domestic responsibilities? To what extent are wage or earnings gaps due to unconscious bias against women in hiring or promotion decisions? And to what degree do women—whether consciously or unconsciously—limit themselves to more feminine occupations? The answers to these questions are essential for us to formulate smart policy responses.

Can economic incentives combat unconscious bias by encouraging women to consciously examine their career choices, avoid default choices that conform to social norms, and choose higher paying jobs? An experiment in Kenya found that providing young people information on the returns to training in different areas—complemented by inspirational videos about women who succeeded in traditionally male-dominated occupations—led to more young women choosing training in higher-paying male occupations. The IDB is currently trying a similar intervention in partnership with the Public Education Ministry of Mexico.

Getting women into training courses for more high-paying occupations is, of course, only the first step. They need to complete the training courses and not drop out because of a hostile environment or lack of female role models. And then they need to make the leap to gainful employment and successful careers.

For some women, the issue is productivity and earnings. But for others, the issue is more basic:  participation per se.

While the participation rate of women in Latin America and the Caribbean has grown from 45.5% in 1995 to 53.8% in 2014—the fastest rate of increase in any world region—it remains 26 points below male participation rates. And since 2012 there has been a deceleration in women’s labor force participation in the region. It seems that the easy gains in participation have been made, and that further increases will require addressing structural constraints that limit women’s participation, like access to child and elder care.

Women’s economic empowerment remains a challenge in Latin America and around the world—which is precisely why over 200 experts representing the public and private sectors, governments, civil society and multilateral development banks are gathering today and tomorrow in Washington DC to attend the 2016 Global Gender Summit on Women’s Economic Empowerment. The event will allow us to share new developments, lessons learned, emerging challenges, and best practices in advancing women’s economic empowerment globally.

Join us on today in shaping the future of the gender equality agenda. Follow the Summit via livestream and take part in the discussion using #MDBgender on Twitter.

This post was originally published in the IDB Gender and Diversity Division blog.

About the author:

Andrew Morrison is the Gender and Diversity Division Chief at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Prior to joining the IDB, he worked at the World Bank as Lead Economist in the Gender and Development Group and as Regional Gender Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. He also has worked as an associate professor of economics at Tulane University and the University of New Mexico (U.S.)

One Response to "Do We Have Unconscious Bias About Gender and Work?"

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