Breaking the bias this International Women’s Day

Switching the Stereotype Main Image (Twitter)

Switching the Stereotypes Part 1: In the first of two Director’s Blogs for International Women’s Day 2022, our Managing Director Lisa Charlotte Davis considers parenting and organisational culture. How does your workplace compare?

This International Women's Day invited us to focus on the theme of breaking the bias. This led us to dig back through some interesting research findings which we gathered during the pandemic, together with Dr Stephen Burrell and presented in our Gender Equality in the North East Workplace report.

Of the 72 professionals who participated, 84% felt that their workplace culture encourages gender equality & inclusion. That sounds incredibly positive.

But there are some statistics on specific issues under the umbrella of gender equality that prompt us to ask if everything really is as positive as that headline figure suggests.


Let's start with a piece of artwork from our Who Wears the Trousers zine & animation. When you see this image and you think about the pandemic, and in particular lockdown, what comes into your mind?

How did home-schooling work out for people?

It was pretty exhausting right?

But was it equally exhausting for men and women?

Our report revealed that 57% of respondents felt women were affected worse by the pandemic compared to 3% who thought men were affected worse.

Zooming out to a nationwide study conducted by the University of Sussex:

  • 67% of women with work commitments described themselves as the default parent during lockdown
  • 70% reported being completely / mostly responsible for home schooling



Let’s have a look at some of the comments our survey respondents actually made.

The first very much chimes with that opening statistic that suggests there isn’t really a gender equality issue for us to get vexed about!

“I have had both men and women struggling to come into work when their children have been sent home due to a Covid bubble. I see no difference that it affected women or men differently.”

But the majority of comments on this theme chime with the statistics about women having been disproportionately affected.

“Mothers with kids have been absent from team meetings much more than those without – or even dads.”

“I don’t know of any men that did home-schooling. It was left to the female to juggle both.”

“Unfortunately, women are still expected to take on the lion’s share of the caring burden.”

“Women seemed to be the lead on all childcare & homeschooling therefore their work was impacted more due to these added responsibilities & pressures.”

How does this add up?

Going back to that initial 84% of people telling us their workplace encourages gender equality, this calls us to ask how this belief marries with 57% of the same group of people telling us women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Is it because we’re seeing parenting as a private family issues and not the business of the workplace? 

It may be fair to say that the pandemic was very much an extreme, extraordinary period of time, but it could also be useful for us to see it as a magnifying glass to draw attention to some of the tendencies anyway around us within our culture.

This comment from Alison Lacey in the University of Sussex’s research team makes it sound as if the increased juggle for women is a private family decision:

“Because men tend to earn more, their jobs have more often taken priority with women more likely to be left providing the childcare.”

But is that right?

If we look at some of the additional figures from our report:

  • 35% felt women’s productivity was worse affected by the pandemic (vis-à-vis 5% for men)
  • 28% felt women’s career progression was worse affected (vis-à-vis 0% for men)

…they suggest there is a double bind for women in the workplace – how can they earn more if their productivity and progression is more affected?

What if it were bigger than a private family decision?


This is artwork that came from 2 sequential projects – Men’s Voices and Stepping Out of the Box, involving professional artists, groups of men and groups of boys & girls in County Durham Secondary schools.

What do they make you think of in terms of the situation for women and how this actually could be a workplace issue rather than a purely private family matter to be resolved at home?

For me, this artwork takes me back to the concept of gender roles:

Who do we expect to be doing the caring?

Who do we see as nurturers?

How is this reflected in our organisational culture, in the policies but also in the banter and the underlying expectations of men and women?

Let's have a look at a few more contributions here that point to the way in which we might need to interrogate our organisational cultures to see if there any lingering old-fashioned societal gender norms still being reinforced, perhaps without us realising!

In 2018-19, 17% of people said they disapproved of mothers with children under 3 working full-time, while 4% expressed this view when asked about fathers.

British Social Attitudes report, National Centre for Social Research

“There is an underlying assumption care is women’s work even when they are the primary earner. To tackle that we need to examine what happens when children are born.”

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director, the Women’s Budget Group

“Fathers are vital to progressing gender equality for mothers.”

Ann Francke, Chief Executive, Chartered Management Institute

“Women are given much more leeway when it comes to phoning in sick or needing time off – men are expected to get on with it and come in.”

Survey participant, our Gender equality in the NE workplace report

It’s wonderful if lots of our North East businesses are being proactive about gender equality in the workplace… but this final comment from our survey is interesting in that it points to behaviours within workplaces that employers might think are making the workplace more inclusive for women, but which may be backfiring if they are not part of a bigger, concerted effort to challenge some of the gendered expectations within our culture. Expectations that will also be playing out in the workplace unless we pay attention and ensure otherwise.

If we are expecting women to take greater childcare responsibility, is this unwittingly accompanied by a "Man Up!" style assumption that the male members of the workforce are workaholics for whom it would be odd to take a day off for one's own health - or perhaps that of a child?

Calling for culture change

The tricky thing about cultural norms is that they often lie just beneath the surface. They can be subtle and seem so normal we might not notice that they are even making a difference to our behvaiour.

Culture change isn’t easy! But if we can start to notice the messages we are creating, what we are implicitly encouraging or reinforcing, what it might be possible for us to challenge….maybe the pandemic can be a prompt for us to seize the moment and break down some of our biases!

In arguing for female inclusion in the government's pandemic recovery slogan Build Back Better, MP Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, argues that:

“It is not good enough to look at policies in the round when we know women need even more help to just get back to where they were.”

Let's make sure that workplace practice around gender equality and inclusion takes into account the gender norms lingering within our culture. There is more we need to celebrate and challenge if we are  to break the biases surrounding women and caring responsibilities.