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‘Going in the wrong direction’: Former US treasurer Rosa Rios on unconscious bias holding

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It’s estimated that 46 percent of employees in the financial services industry are female, but at executive levels this number drops to a dismal 15 percent. Mrs Rios puts this down to the concept of women, money and power; more specifically the idea that they can’t overlap.

“We all have a daughter, a mother, a sister, a niece so for me it’s not really a gender issue it’s a future leadership issue,” Mrs Rios began.

“One hundred and fifty billion dollars was invested in 2020 and only 2.2 percent of that went to women.
“What’s even sadder is that the year prior, in 2019, 2.6 percent went to female founders so we’re actually going in the wrong direction,” she explained.

This is an equity issue as well as an access problem in the entrepreneurial world as many female founders struggle not just to avoid the stigma of being a female founder but to gain the capital they need to succeed.

“When it comes to access to capital that is certainly one of the financial deserts for women.”

Mrs Rios also highlighted a possible cause of this problem: unconscious bias.

The premise of conscious bias is well-known – we are impacted and affected by what we see, however, unconscious bias is the impact of what we don’t see and is equally influential on the human mind.

For example: in March of 2010, Mrs Rios was integral to the first ever women in finance symposium in the United States, inviting successful women from across all business sectors.

“As part of the preparation for that symposium I did a little bit of research and I came across only 22 historical photos of women in treasury, that’s all I could find.”

In comparison, the halls of the treasury building have been lined with portraits of all the past secretaries, all of whom were male, for decades.

Another example of unconscious bias was made blatantly clear when Mrs Rios first joined the Obama administration in 2009.

Whilst she was the only woman to be senate approved, there were six other women in key decision-making positions in the very same administration.

This is one of the many reasons contributing to her making the women in finance symposium.

“I don’t think people would’ve realised who was in the drivers’ seat if I didn’t do that,” she added.

Mrs Rios also contributed the outstanding attendance of powerful female panellists to the fact that she did not invite them to talk about the generic work-life/personal conversations that women in business are usually subjected to.

“We kind of get stuck in those conversations and become that novelty.”

Instead, the focus of the symposium was on finance, business and the economy, areas that all these women happily contributed to because they were not being subjected to the trivial ‘novelty’ conversations they knew all too well.

This unconscious bias is not only limiting women from getting a foot in the door, but also preventing women inside the room from being seen.

Talking about Janet Yellen, Mrs Rios commented: “Yes, she is the first female of the treasury but she’s also the only person, male or female, who’s ever been the chair of the council of economic advisors, the chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and now the Secretary of the Treasury.

“No male or female has ever done that.

“Again, it’s not giving her the pat on the head, it’s acknowledging that she was well more than qualified for that position.”

This has unfortunately become the norm in business, as more women begin the tumultuous climb up the corporate ladder many of their achievements are prefixed by their gender, as Mr Rios explained: “People always ask me the question, ‘Isn’t that great to be the first or the only’ and for me it’s actually kind of sad.

“I don’t want to be the only and I certainly don’t want to be the first, I want us to not be the novelty, we are the norm.”

Changing this culture of invisibility starts by empowering the women that have made it through the glass ceiling and helping to champion those that are still fighting.

For Mrs Rios, this is through: “Awareness and action, being conscious and conscientious.”

“We have to make a much more deliberate and thoughtful effort to be more inclusive, not women for the sake of women.

“It’s ‘how do we make equitable decisions that take into account the full pipeline of activity?’”

And it’s not just up to the men in key positions to encourage this change, but a fair share of responsibility also lies on women to change the habits and mindsets that are not serving them in business.

“We as women don’t really use our networking in the same way that men do. We don’t really nurture those networks and organisations in the same way.”

Many of these stigmas have been ingrained into the majority of women during school, as a study in Science Magazine discovered that the confidence of little girls begins to start a downward spiral at the same age they start school.

“Whether it’s the teachers who don’t call on them, whether it’s the mean girls or the boys who pick on them, it makes a big difference in how they think about themselves.

“In general, there is this expectation that women don’t excel as much in math and science and that has to change.”

Mrs Rios added that the new generation of millennials and post-millennials have the greatest chance of breaking this cycle of gender bias in schools.

Not only does access to the internet make successful women more visible to young girls and boys, but it also provides the extra resources to help those young girls explore all fields of study without the stigma of needing help to do so.

“I’m very hopeful for this next generation,” she shared.

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