Does unconscious bias start even before we are born?

12 months ago on a beautiful Singapore morning I received a life changing message from my wife. I was playing tennis with my friends and she was patiently waiting for me to get home, but couldn't contain her excitement any longer. Like so many before and after us we had the exciting news that we were pregnant.

With everything happening around us, this lead to thoughts of what kind of world we were bringing a baby into. Is it a world that we are proud of? Is it a harmonious and safe world? And how do we ensure that we create an environment of opportunity? How do we ensure we pass on strong values to our child as the grow? One thing that became increasingly apparent is that, despite some improvement, we still live in a world of prejudice. It is predominantly a "man's world" full of gender inequality; racism and racial hate still plagues many societies; and a world full of unconscious bias. The events of the past 12 months now have me questioning the source or sources of this unconscious bias, including whether he starts even before we are born before being reinforced in everyday life from our early years. As all parents would understand, my wife Sei and I went through the nervous and impatient game of wanting to tell the whole world of our exciting news, but needing to wait until it was safe and appropriate to do so. Once we got through that nervous period, this is where the story of unconscious bias and my questioning begins. As the weeks and months progress and we excitedly shared our news with family and friends that we were going to have a baby boy we were constantly greeted with comments like " oh Mick, you must be so proud". You could put this down to just a turn of phrase or being nice, but body language and beaming smiles would indicate a genuine feeling that I should be proud that we are having a boy. This has always begged a question for me. If I had have said we were having a girl, would we have been greeted with " oh, better luck next time" or worse "oh you must be so disappointed" You can say I am being over dramatic or exaggerating but the sentiment that I should be somehow prouder to have a boy felt very real to me and it is just not right.

The next step in reinforcing this bias comes shortly after the birth of Thomas and it came time to name him and register his birth. Whilst there are some people and cultures that buck this trend, for the most part, the society norm is for the child to take the Father's family name. Furthermore, if the child's parents are married it is most likely that the Mother has already changed their name to match their husband. There are more and more exceptions to this with same sex families for example, but the overwhelming majority still sticks to this tradition. So my questions are, who decided that the man's name is more important? Does this reinforce gender bias? And is it time to change this up for good? Things do not necessarily get any better once the newborn baby gets home. During their formative years, when they are most impressionable, children are constantly confronted with messages that reinforce gender bias. Even quite modern and recent television programs like Cocomelon have a bias within. It is clear that the producers have attempted some level of balance but it is not quite there. The mother in the show is seen as more of a homemaker and when the father does things around the house it is somehow depicted as "special". Furthermore, whenever there is an odd number of characters there are always more boys than girls. Eg 5 pandas jumping on the bed; 5 ducks at swimming; or even the family of 3 kids all have boys in the majority. Beyond gender bias, racial bias also kicks in from a very young age. Children are born colour blind to race, you can see it in their early interactions with other children in playgrounds and play centres. However, it is does not take too long for children to be presented with racial bias. Even beloved books from my childhood like Dr Seuss, when I look back now I can see clear examples of racial bias. You don't need to look very hard in social media and in everyday life to see this bias being reinforced. You could argue that I am being over critical or that another bias, confirmation bias, is meaning that I am seeing these things because I am looking for them. However, for me these unconscious biases are very real and we must address them if we are going to make a lasting change in gender and racial equality in the world. My personal call to action is to make sure that I am the best possible role model to Thomas and his brother Henry as they grow up. To show them there is no place in the world for bias and prejudice. It is also to be an ally to anyone who experience bias, prejudice or exclusion and to call it out when I see something that is just not right. To make longer lasting and more impactful change I do believe we need to continue to challenge societal norms. We may be past the mysoginistic era of Bridgerton where a woman's value was only measured by their ability to attract the attention of suitors and a husband, but we still have a long way to go.


Mick Spiers

Experienced executive leader; mentor; and founder of The Leadership Project

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