What the #BreakTheBias Campaign Means

If we consider history, the gender roles that have become entrenched in our society were a result of divisions of labour. Now, in a knowledge era where traditional divisions of labour no longer apply, women and men still battle against these interrogated beliefs. Compelled to persuade others that they are capable to become leaders of countries and industries, women’s shortage of representation in key fields are the result of multiple factors, including bias.

Research tells us that by the age of 2–3-years, children begin to show evidence of grasping basic associations between activities and objects and how it correlates to different genders and sex. These stereotypes strengthen and begin to influence children’s choices in sports, school subjects, and personality traits by a primary school level.

Particularly in societies where there is significant pressure for children to conform to their gender – such as homes and societies where boys are pressured to withhold their emotions to show strength – children learn that they are more likely to be treated positively if they adhere to these norms.

These preconceived notions, of others and of ourselves, prevents our true freedom. The first step to #BreakTheBias is to understand that if we feel limited by our gender, it is often a result of bias and not capability.

These biases have prevented the global economy from sharing an additional $70 trillion of wealth since 1990, as reported by BofA Securities. It has also made our economies more vulnerable because women, while making up 50% or more of the population, are more susceptible to shocks in the economy.

In South Africa, for example, during the pandemic historically disadvantaged women had a 16% chance of losing their job, and it is compounded even further for historically disadvantaged young women (aged 15-34) who had a more than 1-in-4 chance of being laid off. This is particularly unsettling when we consider that 41.8% of households in South Africa are female-headed.

To #BreakTheBias, women and men must interrogate the conscious and sub-conscious views we hold.

Eckhart Tolle tells us a story of the Zen teacher and monk Kasan, who was asked to officiate at a funeral of a famous nobleman. As he stood and waited for the governor, lords and ladies to arrive he noticed that the palms of his hands were sweaty. In the practice of Zen, there is a universal truth that all human beings are united in sameness, whether beggar or king. His sweaty palms were an indication that he was nervous, and this nervousness was a result of inner beliefs of human hierarchy and difference. Rather than overlooking the incident, he admitted that he wasn’t ready to be a true teacher and resumed his learning as a pupil under another master. Eight years later, when he knew he was enlightened, he returned.

This story inspires us to re-consider how we appoint our leaders. Leadership is earned through understanding. More than considering expertise, leaders should also show qualities such as appreciation for diversity and treating all human beings with equal respect and dignity. This is how we start a cycle to #BreakTheBias and build a more equal and sustainable future.