Internalised sexism and women in the boardroom

Two thirds of women in fund management have experience sexism finds FTfm survey

Recently, there has been much discussion about women in senior leadership roles and on furthering female presence in boardrooms – presumably due to the recent passing of International Women’s Day.

The chairman of Tesco, for example, came under much fire for claiming that “white men are an endangered species in the boardroom”, claiming that it was an excellent time for people to be either female or part of an ethnic minority.

Interestingly, the above touches upon a bizarre area of workplace gender bias which we often do not explore. If our schemes to put women into the boardroom (which the Tesco chairman has highlighted as perhaps skewing the favour towards them) are so successful, why do we repeatedly see that the number of women in top level jobs is insufficient?

Internalised sexism as a “hold back” factor

There’s a belief that’s held by many people which propagates the idea that we can forget about gender once we get more women into senior roles. This is where the Tesco chairman was coming from when he made his remarks: he feels that by consistently filling our boardrooms with women and people of colour, we will be ridding them completely of white men. However, this is never the case.

Everyone is a problem when it comes to gender bias – and as soon as we stop paying attention and taking careful measures to generate equality, we start to go backwards.

I’ve seen working examples of these attitudes causing problems before. Previously, I worked with a business previously who told me that they’d got more women into their senior leadership roles than ever before. They were quite rightly thrilled and excited about this progress and how they’d managed to create gender parity within their business – as any business should be when they look to help women move into roles which would have previously be out of their reach.

The company took their focus on promoting female leadership and progression. As a result, they’d found a few years later that the proportion of women had gone down. This was because women were appointing just as many men into senior roles as their male counterparts had been doing previously.

What this boils down to is internalised sexism.

Although women are often more aware of gender issues, they often overlook the fact that society has influenced most women have the same biases as men.

As a result, we can easily lose our way on the road to gender parity – even when it was paved with the best intentions.

Overcoming internalised sexism

Gender issues largely attract women – I know this from my conferences and talks. Very regularly, someone tells me that I’m talking to the wrong people. Often, women believe they don’t have a gender bias: but they do.

No-one is blaming anyone here. This is simply how we are socialised and what we learn from gender stereotypes. However, we still need to acknowledge that it is part of the problem. Talking to men about the issues at hand only addresses half of the problem instead of the whole thing. If we are to achieve gender equality, we must work at it from both sides: and recognise that biases are not just held by those who are seen as “oppressors”, but by the oppressed too.

About the author

Professor Binna Kandola OBE is a diversity expert and founder of business psychologists Pearn Kandola. He has written extensively about gender in the work place, and seeks to tackle unconscious bias in the business world.

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