March 6, 2022

Spotlight on gender bias

In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day theme – break the bias – we asked women role models across Ramboll which biases hold back women in their field, and what we can do to break them. Here are their candid and honest responses, edited lightly for clarity.

Philippa Spence, Managing Director, Ramboll UK:
A common bias I have come across is against working mothers, particularly if they work reduced hours. This bias manifests in assumptions that a woman’s career will become more of a ‘hobby’ if they have children. I have seen it applied to young women without children as well, on the assumption that at some point they might have a family and then lose their career interest.
Such views are enormously detrimental, inaccurate and unfair, and can result in decision-makers writing women off from the get-go as leaders of the future. I worked part-time for over a decade when my daughters were young, and I had to fight these views all the way.
To break the bias employers must acknowledge and act on three things: 1) part-time workers can and should progress, but must not be asked to do a full-time job in condensed time to do so; 2) having children and career progression absolutely can happen in parallel with the right enablement, such as flexible working; 3) Such bias must be called out – without bringing it to the surface and tackling it head-on, it will persist.
Kathlin Dias, Environmental Engineer and Healthy and Safety Engineer, Brazil:
In Brazil, being a woman and an engineer can be an everyday challenge. We can face difficult situations, such as sexual and moral harassment, professional devaluation, salary inequality, difficulty to be heard and respected, racial prejudice, etc.
Motherhood can also be a barrier to career progression because it can be perceived as a lack of professional commitment and dedication. Some women work outside the home and take care of the house and family.
Companies can address biases through information, education, and by implementing EDI programs (Equity, Diversity & Inclusion). It is essential to reflect the diversity of our society, including LGBTQA+ community, black women, people with disabilities, etc. In addition, equal pay and the introduction of working from home schemes with flexible working hours for mothers with children can also help.
Christine B. Ng, consultant, Environment & Health, US:
Speaking from my own childhood and young adult experience, I was often discouraged by my family and other trusted people from taking risks, which I’ve found to be a common thread for other girls and women. I accepted and excelled at tasks asked of me, but these tended to be within my comfort zone. That meant waiting to respond to a teacher’s questions until I was 100% certain of the answer, hesitating to be critical of someone in charge, or taking on an assignment or role only if I was confident of success.
This also led others to think I would excel in “safe” opportunities but would not be eager to pursue “high risk, high reward” pursuits. Over the years, first as an engineering student decades ago and now as a Principal at Ramboll, I’ve tried to push past my inherent risk aversion while taking on new challenges, which has been stressful but rewarding. We can support the girls and women in our lives by encouraging them to take risks that could advance their education, career, and personal growth, and appreciate that we can learn as much from failure as success.
Yvonne Wong Lai Fong, Senior HR Business Partner, Singapore:
To me, one of the biases that hold back women is the negativity bias, which causes us to doubt our own abilities. It’s a self-belief, instilled in us from a young age through teaching and the surrounding environment, which leads us to think that women are not as capable and don’t have the same rights as men. This strong negativity bias can cause lower self-esteem, preventing women from wanting to try or believe that they can achieve something greater. To #Breakthebias, we women must believe that our capabilities are not defined by our gender, and this belief should be cultivated from a young age.
Pritha Hariram, Head of Department, Water Infrastructure and Climate Adaptation, Singapore:
On this International Women’s Day, I join the UN Women and the world in coming together under the theme “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. Women and girls across the world experience the greatest impacts of climate change as they bear a disproportionate responsibility for securing food, water, and fuel. I am proud to be recognised as a thought leader among my peers in finding practical and scientifically based solutions in water management to secure a more sustainable future for all.
This recognition is also an attest to “Breaking the Bias” of female engineers, scientists and leaders working and contributing for a sustainable and climate resilient future, especially in the water infrastructure sector. I strongly believe my continued passion and hard work, striving for sustainable change together with many other female leads, is breaking us free from the bias, stereotypes and discrimination and earning us a seat at the table. Not because we are female leads, but as leaders in engineering and science bringing practical solutions to building a climate just future.
Tara Wood, Head of Business Development, Sweden:
I have during almost 30 years in the construction industry had many fantastic experiences, but I have also seen a lot of gender bias. The industry has improved but has still some way to go. One of my more recent experiences (pre Ramboll) being that women are somehow deemed less strong than men and hence less able to cope with demanding projects in the construction phase, particularly with children at home. Thankfully I have been offered the opportunity to put such ideas to the grave a number of times, but not without significant lobbying from people around me who I am very thankful towards. A second insight is that middle-aged men tend to ask for advice from other middle-aged men, even on issues outside of their competence area. To this end the solution is similar: Carrots and sticks are needed.
We need to promote more people in the industry that want diversity, both men and women. This can start with collaboration with schools and universities, but action is also necessary in our workplaces. We need to provide incentives for companies like Ramboll to promote careers in the construction sector to a younger, diverse generation, (planting the seeds) while at the same time providing training so more people in decision-making positions are able to see their bias, understand it, and move past it. This requires an understanding that it is a natural phenomenon to want to interact with similar-looking people (our automated “old brain” drives this). But with support it is possible to reprogram our automatic behaviour towards more diverse “automatic” responses. I believe women in civil engineering are “pre-conditioned” for diversity – given the general lack of women in the industry, we are used to not working with people who look like us, hence tend to encourage greater diversity in general; not just promoting women, but being open to all diversities as equals.
Emory Lee, Senior Project Manager, Water, US
My perspective on biases affecting people who identify as women in my industry is fundamentally informed by my lived experiences as a non-binary, transmasculine person. Although I am female-bodied and perceived as/assumed to be a woman by society, I do not identify as a cisgender woman and thusly with the physical body I have. I only began to embrace this aspect of my identity, personally and professionally, several years ago and it has opened my eyes to the true variety of experiences of people who identify as women and their associated professional journeys.
Despite being someone who does not identify with the gender binaries of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, I have lived most of my life in the experience of a cisgender woman. I have encountered many of the systemic stereotypes and biases endured by female-bodied people who do identify as cisgender and have witnessed the deleterious effects of deeply engrained stereotypes and biases toward women in the workplace. In my industry, I’ve noticed that people frequently underestimate the leadership capabilities of individuals who identify as women and somewhat counterintuitively assume that people who identify as women will always say, “Yes” to an assignment or to taking responsibility for work. I’ve observed that many tasks with an organisational or administrative purpose (such as taking notes, scheduling meetings, deskwork or ‘gruntwork’, indexing, other logistics) are often delegated to, or in some cases presumed to be taken care of by, people who identify as women. Finally, despite many great strides to reduce the gender pay gap, drastic differences remain between the pay scales of male-bodied and female-bodied people.
As for what we can do to #breakthebias, I believe we need to first #breakthegenderbinary to dismantle the labels of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ which tie to the very stereotypes and biases that adversely affect people who identify as women in our industry. If we can first broaden our understanding of the lived experiences of people who identify as women, we can then expand our comprehension of the vast capabilities of female-bodied people and people who identify as women, beyond the outmoded stereotypes, biases and assumptions that have historically limited their professional experiences.
Emily Weissinger, Senior Managing Consultant, US:
One bias that I think is holding women back in our industry is the perception that the often female-attributed traits of empathy, compassion, and vulnerability are signs of weakness. They are not – they are our superpowers. I have also been told that you can’t succeed in this business if you’re “too nice”. Engaging with our coworkers and clients on a human level is critical to our individual success and longevity in this industry. If that’s what it means to be “nice”, I’m fine with that.
Vidya Basarkod, Country Director, India and Director, Ramboll Engineering Center:
During my 38-year career, I have met and still keep meeting quite a few women who do not believe they are equally capable and can deliver projects just as well as anyone else. They hold back from accepting more responsibility, thinking it will be difficult for them to manage, and hold back from asking for help and support from colleagues and managers. As a leader, I would like to address these issues and show them examples of what other women leaders are doing.
I have not come across any instances of unconscious bias in my professional environment that directly affected me in my work, but I have observed many instances where women tend to follow stereotypes and unconsciously perpetuate such biases. It is ironic that some of them still share attitudes that diminish them. I would like to draw their attention to practising some ‘deliberate behaviours’:
  1. Come to meetings well-prepared, with numbers and facts, with an intent for active participation; exhibit job-relevant competencies during team discussions
  2. Stand up and walk to the centre of the audience while making an important point – that way you have everyone’s attention while you communicate
  3. Anytime you witness someone being interrupted, do speak up to ensure that person can voice her input
  4. commit to one action you would take to manage bias or practice a new behavior.
  5. Strategic display of positive emotions to improve discussion outcomes, to exhibit these behaviors, which included being empathetic, friendly and smiling
Melinda Truskowski, Principal, Environment & Health and Energy, US:
At a certain seniority level, there is a bias that few women in science and engineering have the sufficient experience to fill those roles. Therefore, not having women in positions of leadership is not seen as a problem that needs to be fixed. At the highly competitive engineering college that I attended 40 years ago there were nearly 20% women. Yet looking at the representation in upper management with a similar number of years of experience, the gender balance is nowhere close to that percentage.
We consistently see nearly equal numbers of men and women being hired into consulting and engineering, but the representation diminishes with seniority. This is compounded by the second bias.
When I pointed out the gender balance of universities compared to the representation in leadership at a prior firm, I was asked how many of my peers were still working (at mid-career). This bias is that women will stop working when they have children, or that their career will take second priority to their spouse.
A bias that everyone faces is assumptions regarding role or capability based on appearance. Whether that is gender, race, attractiveness, or some other physical attribute, we need to assess each person’s capabilities independent of outward appearance and provide opportunities accordingly, without making assumptions based on first appearances.
To contact the editor of this article, please email Anders Brønd Christensen .