gender equality

Mum’s the Word: What I learned from Bias


Australians love their mothers. There is no question about it.  Historically, over the last few years, the Australian Retailers Association have forecasted spending at around $2 billion dollars for products and services purchased for Mother’s Day.

This special day prompted a seemingly casual conversation between myself and a friend. I enquired what she was planning to do for Mother’s Day this year.  Her story provided a lightbulb moment for me - and revealed the unsettling truth – of how pervasive unconscious bias is.  

My friend recounted that her children’s school was coordinating an event for Mother’s Day this year. The event was going to be held during school hours (the assumption was that most mothers don’t work).  A make-shift beauty parlour would be set up by the teachers.  The children would then “beautify” their mothers, by painting their nails, putting make-up on and doing their hair.   As Mothers’ Day gifts, the children would make beauty products for the mothers to take home.

Last year, the school celebrated Father’s Day with an event too. The Father’s Day was held on a Saturday morning, outside of school hours (because fathers work full-time). The Father’s Day event was to be a BBQ. But here’s the rub. The school sent out a notice to all families, requesting for mothers to volunteer to do two things; help the school coordinate the event and; cook the BBQ and serve food on the day to the men.  As gifts, the fathers would receive business ties made by the children.

I am a woman and a mother. And I love being pampered.  However, through these school events, the unconscious subtext about how men and women are valued in society was made very clear. I found it unsettling.  Unconscious bias is habitually reinforced – albeit often unintentionally - making it hard for us to recognise it in our daily lives.

The thing is, everyone is predisposed to implicit biases. We all use stereotypes, every day, without consciously even realising it. 

From very early on, we learn the undertone of our culture's messages.  Margo Monteith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, has stated that children form definite and entrenched stereotypes of social groups by the age of five.  By the age of five!

My friend ended up having a courageous conversation with the school Principal.  It wasn’t about political correctness. It was simply about raising awareness and asking the school to develop a more mindful approach to school events in order to address the impact of unconscious bias with the primary school students. 

Clearly, Australians love and value their mums. So why tell this story? I know stories start conversations. Conversations invite awareness and questioning. As we buy products and services for Mother’s Day, I hope this story can begin courageous conversations between people to ask “which biases are ours”? And "how can we do something about it"?

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