Still burdened by bias 2

April 10, 2008

In asking whether women miss out on promotion because of prejudice or because they are less committed, you quote figures from the Robert Drago and Carol L. Colbeck study on bias avoidance (strategies used to minimise intrusions of family on work commitments to achieve career success) in US academics (Leader, March).

The study breaks this bias avoidance into two categories. The first, behaviours that improve work performance at the expense of family commitments, may include decisions to avoid child-rearing or to delay or limit the number of children to achieve career success. It concludes that female tenured academics are significantly more likely to make familial sacrifices than their male colleagues. This surely points to greater, not lesser, commitment on the part of women.

The second category is actions that serve to hide or minimise family commitments to maintain the appearance of ideal worker performance. Again female academics score more highly here. The report goes on to name a trend of "daddy privilege", where men are lauded for the intrusion of family on work commitments, while women experience bias for similar intrusions.

This resonates with my own experience. My line manager did not know I was a single parent for the first three years of my work, but I have had past (male) middle managers curtail their workload by leaving at 3.30pm daily for childcare commitments, and regularly take leave during working semesters to spend time with their families. They were also sanguine about taking time off to care for a sick child. That I and other female colleagues feel the need to "hide" our familial commitments speaks volumes about the prevailing attitudes to mothers in academia.

The report suggests that daddy privilege emerges from the closer application of the norm of motherhood to women and the presumption that men tend to be ideal workers. Performance bars are tacitly set higher for women. Indeed, male academics use daddy privilege to achieve praise for behaviours that would brand female academics as below-par performers.

It is because of these more subtle biases that, despite appearances of having levelled the playing field for men and women with development initiatives and creches, in fact gender inequality remains.

Carol MacGillivray, Thames Valley University.

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