The unspoken impact of unconscious bias on men

Finally, the agency world seems to have woken up to the issue of unconscious bias as more and more agencies sign up for training. We are spending a lot of time talking about how we might unconsciously make it harder for certain groups to get recruited for certain roles, and for certain individuals to achieve promotion success.

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We now understand that a lot of people have an unconscious association between male and career, and subsequently female and family, and the impact that this might have in the workplace for women. In other words, women might be held back by the way in which most people stereotype men as career-centric and women as being family-centric.

This is all great progress.

But have we stopped to think about what the impact of all of this might have on men? Whilst most people have the unconscious association of male and career, that also means that there isn’t, for most, a strong unconscious association between male and family. The impact of this on men is a difficult subject to raise as the discourse is so focused on their privilege. White, middle class, straight men undoubtedly form the ‘in group’ in our industry and are afforded the benefits that offers (one element of unconscious bias is that we give preferential treatment to those that we perceive to be part of the ‘in group’). The benefits of our unconscious associations are clear, the downsides maybe less so.

1. We internalise stereotypes about our own identities

We have a tendency to internalise stereotypes about our own identities. What that means is that we come to believe stereotypes are true when it comes to ourselves and our futures. That’s super useful for career focused men measuring their success by their status and income as they will, unconsciously, believe that to be their destiny. This makes it harder for men to make the decision to be actively engaged in raising their children than it is for women.

The 2017 Modern Families Index suggests that whilst family was the highest priority for fathers, half of those interviewed felt their work-life balance was increasingly a source of stress. A father I spoke to, whose child was being assessed for special needs, spoke to me about his instinctive reaction at the time: “I just went straight into the mindset that I need to make sure that my job is really stable and I’m the provider for our family. I didn’t stop to think about how, by me being more present in the home, I might be able to help our son with some of his difficulties’.

2. We feel shame when we don’t live up to the stereotype

But what if your career isn’t going so well? Maybe you are struggling to get that promotion or you are made redundant. How does that square with your likely unconscious association between male and career? We know that there is shame attached to not matching up to stereotypes. Women I coach have said they are full of shame because they are unable to conceive or are unable to spend the time at home with their families that they would like.

We talk about mum guilt and often, what we are actually talking about is mum shame - the focus is on self, not on behaviour. Women's inability to live up to the stereotype literally makes them feel like they are not enough. Men’s identities can be so bound up in their career and providing, that it isn’t a giant leap to understand how they might feel somehow ‘not enough’ when this isn’t going well for them.

3. Other people hold expectations about our lives

There is a pitifully small take up right now of the extended parental leave rights offered to fathers. About four years ago I spoke to one new father in our industry about the possibility of him taking some extended time off or cutting down his hours at work. He said that he would have been laughed out of his boss’s office and the assumption would have been that his career was just not that important to him anymore. Tempting as it is to say, ‘welcome to our world’ with a world weary sigh, I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful.

So much of our personal fulfilment comes from life outside of work with our family. Could it be that our stereotypes around male and career (and consequently not with family) make it harder for men to lean in to this part of their lives? Research reported by the BBC suggests 44% of dads have lied about family-related responsibilities.

In our unconscious bias sessions we teach that our bias might mean that we expect certain groups to ‘jump higher’ so as to be recruited or promoted. How might we be expecting men to ‘jump higher’ so as be able to 'lean in' to their family (just as we may expect women to jump higher so as to lean in to their careers)?

I coach both men and women and notice challenges that each face around parenthood are very different – it takes a confident man indeed to ask for flexibility as the assumption is that he won’t. We need legislative change if we want it to truly be a choice for many families (at the moment, at most agencies, men aren’t afforded the same rights as women). And yet, our unconscious associations form part of the barrier to overcome too.

I suspect this might be met with an eye roll from some quarters. How dare we be concerned about men when they’ve had centuries of privilege, power and status? Perhaps we are judging that success solely through a commercial, capitalist lens. I think most of us would agree that true fulfilment comes from a variety of sources, with work forming one of these.

With the people I coach, my vision is that they can have a happy home life and a fulfilling career. Whilst we are talking a lot (and rightly so) about how unconscious bias is getting in the way of women's careers, we have only just started talking about how it might be getting in the way of men having a happy home life.

Roxanne Hobbs is founder of The Hobbs Consultancy, and organises a series of #HeAndShe events exploring gender. The next event takes place on Tuesday 20 June.

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