Where do gender biases come from?
Those who follow my social media will know that I’ve already shared my experience of unconscious and gender biases, and how these intermingle with cultural differences.
Our exposure to gender biases from childhood is something we’re all increasingly aware of: boys wear blue, girls wear pink; boys build model planes, girls play with baby dolls; even the fact that girls’ and women’s clothes still often lack pockets points to our perceived role in society, fashion over function i.e. to be seen but not to meaningfully participate.
Given my dual nationalities (French and German), I’m used to navigating the cultural differences that impact these biases. Especially in the career world.
Here are a couple of personal examples: Upon finishing my professional training, I decided to pursue further education, but needed to justify in front of questions like “ Isn’t a training already enough for you as a girl to start working?”
Years later a colleague and I travelled from France to Germany for a meeting. Though we held the same position at the company, our German colleagues assumed I was his secretary based purely on my being a woman. A situation, many of us women have probably experienced in some way.
This is exactly the unconscious bias I’m talking about and I can see it being a circle which can be hard to break, because if we don’t see women in leadership roles in male-dominated industries, then we are training our minds to accept that they simply don’t belong. And this again encourages the low proportion of women in leadership positions.
Gender stereotypes and gender bias - a country perspective
What I can also clearly see is that there are differences in gender stereotypes and the extend of gender bias between countries.
In France it is for example normal for a mother to get back to work full time after a baby is a couple of months old, whereas in Germany mothers still feel ‘guilt’ when it comes to going back to work after children. And even things are evolving in both countries, there is still a lack of childcare structures in Germany probably directly impacting low birth rates. I believe this is driven by common cultural expectations. More importantly, this is exactly the type of difference that will impact representation and the proportion of women in leadership and is mirrored in the development of the Gender Equality Index. France, for example, ranks 4th in the index. Its score is 7.5 points above the EU’s average score. Germany, however, ranks 10th with a score only 0.6 points above the EU’s (it was 0.4 below in 2020). 
According to a recent AllBright report Germany (18.2%) ranks second to last when it comes the proportion of women on the boards of the leading companies. While France (24.6%) is closer to having 1 in 4 split. If we look at data from the International Labour Organization, we can see that the proportion of women in middle and upper management positions in Germany is well below the European average compared to other countries. France is slightly above the average but still trails more than a dozen countries.
Given women represent more or less half the workforce, it’s clear that both countries are far from a balanced representation of talent.
Striving for inclusion and equality - are we experiencing a 'big change'?
So what has changed over the last couple of years? Our generation has become more and more aware of the importance of gender equality. Governments are taking initiatives to emphasize diversity and inclusion and to tackle gender bias.
In France, protest groups have exposed the gender gap of city maps  – a meagre 2.6 percent of the streets in the country’s capital are named after notable women – by covering 60 street signs in the Ile de la Cité with the names of women scientists, artists, and politicians. The stunt reenforces the point that representation, however small, is meaningful but sadly these acts are only temporary.
Germany is encouraging the use of ‘Gender fair language’ where it is only correct if you address both genders e.g. (Kolleginnen and Kollegen; Kolleg*innen) (colleagues, female and male), though the language still leaves little room for those outside the gender binary.
These are indeed the right steps, but remembering what I said at the beginning, a very important question arises: How can we incorporate all we know about gender bias in early childhood education?
One of the answers would probably be using all we know about how kids learn to build more awareness around gender bias. They learn in multiple ways, through observation, through experimentation and trial and error, through direct instruction or just people telling them something and so they learn. Knowing this, I think, embedding pro gender messages into our content, and exposing children to as many really important early learning skills as we can, whether that's coding, whether it's creating a strong mathematical foundation for them, whether that's introducing them to characters or people who have careers they've never thought of, particularly if those people are women. Through those methods and avenues, we can support, hopefully, reduce gender bias in our kids.
Naturally, there’s so much more to be done to combat gender bias – from parenting and education to governmental and business initiatives – but I feel like we are making progress.
I’d love to hear from you on your experience and what more needs to be done.
About the author
Bettina Isabey, Head of Global Account Management
I am a financing specialist and Head of Global Account Management at Siemens Financial Services. I am passionate about how finance can enable infrastructural development to the benefit of society and economies – from urban mobility and smart cities to sustainable energy and pioneering digitalization solutions.
I have spent much of my professional career working with businesses across Siemens. I am a German native living in Paris and a trilingual European professional who thrives in complex, international and multicultural environments.