Breaking Bias Barriers

By Kerry Sapet, SDC CPA

Maybe you’ve heard this old riddle before: a father and son are in a terrible car crash. The father dies and the son is rushed to the hospital. Just before the boy’s surgery is about to begin, the surgeon looks at him and says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” How is this possible?

If you haven’t heard this one before, did you guess that the surgeon was the boy’s mother? If not, you’re part of the majority. In a Boston University study, only 14% of the students surveyed came up with the right answer. Some students theorized that the “father” in the car referred to a priest, the surgeon was confused, or the scenario was a dream. The same results applied to a study with children. The children’s solutions to the riddle ranged from the son having two fathers to the surgeon being a ghost. “The dad laid down and officials thought he was dead, but he was alive,” explained one child.

The results of the study point to the power of gender schemas—the generalizations that help people explain the world. Many people hearing the riddle for the first time overlook the fact that the surgeon was a woman due to long-lasting gender stereotypes, according to Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College. These stereotypes can affect both personal and professional aspects of people’s lives. Some gender bias is blatant, such as glass ceilings and pay disparities between professional male and female soccer players. Years ago, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked by the dean of Harvard Law School to justify taking the place of a male applicant. She was paid less during her teaching career and hid her pregnancy under baggy clothes for fear of getting fired.

Most people are familiar with stories of barefaced gender biases such as the ones Ginsburg faced. But gender bias can also be subtle. It is couched in beliefs about how someone should behave based on their gender. Often these are implicit biases, with people not even realizing these beliefs play a role in hiring, promotions, and microaggressions, such as negative comments about the way women look or act.

While many traditionally male-dominated industries have made strides in tackling flagrant gender-based discrimination, these unconscious biases, invisible threats rooted in the traditions and cultural expectations of the businesses, still hold women back. They are easily veiled and happen more frequently than overt discrimination, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Eden King at Rice University and Kristen Jones at the University of Memphis.

According to Caryl Rivers, coauthor of The New Soft War on Women and a journalism professor at Boston University. “Discrimination today is not as in your face as it was before. It’s often harder to see. Legally, you can’t say ‘I’m not going to hire you or give you this assignment because you’re a woman and you can’t do it,’ but the old attitudes still run deep and are expressed subtly.”

Understanding and being aware of implicit biases is the first step to rooting them out. They occur at all stages of employment—from the job description details in a job posting to the interview process to performance management to compensation and promotions to termination. For example, Virginia Valian’s research indicates people presented with the same resume for a man and a woman usually consider the man to be more competent. According to a recent study by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, women’s evaluations contain nearly twice as much language about their nurturing style; they also receive 2.5 times as much feedback about their “aggressive communication style” compared to men. What may be deemed “assertive” coming from a man, is sometimes labeled as “bossy” or “aggressive” coming from a woman. Consider the following example:

Broker #1: “I’m just reaching out to see if you have had the time to look over the files I sent last week?”    

Broker #2: “Have you looked at the files I sent last week?”

Do you picture the brokers as two different sexes? Fillers such as “I’m just reaching out”, “I think”, or “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” are a less direct communication style, more commonly associated with women. Often when women use language like Broker #2, they are considered confrontational, aggressive, or abrasive. Men who use language like Broker #2 are typically deemed direct and decisive.

Gender bias plays out in many ways. According to Business Insider, in 2018, the average woman working full-time in the US earned $0.82 for every $1.00 the average man working full-time earned. And while fathers tend to command higher salaries than their peers without children, mothers earn less than women who don’t have kids. Subtler forms of discrimination may be excluding a female colleague from an after-work happy hour or telling her she’s not ready for the pressure of a management position.

Women are still underrepresented in the C-suite levels and while diversity training is helpful, it’s not an easy fix. According to Kim Waller, executive vice president at Willis Towers Watson, a firm that helps build relationships with minority and women-owned business enterprises: “The first step towards gender equality is for businesses to explicitly stand up and say that it is an important issue to them, but change requires constant reinforcement. Most major companies have made some statement around a commitment to diversity and many have initiated training, but what’s vital is how leaders reinforce that in the way they show up and manage people every day, and the methods they use to eradicate that bias.

Just because we’ve had awareness training that may have lasted a couple of hours, it doesn’t mean we will automatically reframe how we think about things. Changing our behavior and our pattern of thought is difficult and it takes time.”

Waller advocates for widening the talent pool to open doors for women and other diverse groups. It’s also good for business. Studies show businesses benefit from having a range of perspectives and backgrounds. “It really comes down to being able to have the best talent at the table,” Waller says. “The challenges of today are not going to be the challenges of tomorrow and companies are often blindsided because they don’t have the right leaders at the table to give a balanced perspective.”

Businesses have come a long way towards mitigating brazen incidences of gender bias. Eliminating subtler forms of gender bias is much trickier. Education and becoming aware of potential biases is a start, along with taking a good hard look at business practices. Companies can also promote programs that encourage women and other underrepresented individuals.

As adjusters, what can we do better to prevent unconscious bias? Consider the following:

  1. Use gender-neutral language. Gender-neutral language means avoiding words that denote a single sex when the information pertains equally to either or both sexes. For example:
    • Saying “police officer” instead of “policeman”.
    • Saying “All employees should take their laptops home every night” instead of “Every employee should take his laptop home every night”.
  2. Avoid stereotyping, such as assuming an adjuster on a complex, large property claim is male or a construction worker is male.
  3. Avoid envisioning a person as more experienced or smarter based on their gender.

Changing ingrained cultural biases about gender is not easy, and especially when those biases are implicit. “Eternal vigilance, I think, is the only solution,” says Deborah Belle, a psychology professor at Boston University. “These schemas do change over time”—she points to other countries with greater gender equity—“but the pace is glacial.”

If you would like more information about breaking bias barriers, please contact Kerry Sapet at (630) 820-5770 or via email at

This is a publication of Southern Loss Association, Inc., P.O. Box 421564, Atlanta, GA 30342. The articles published on this website are in a general format and are not intended to be legal advice applicable to any specific circumstances. Legal opinions may vary when based on subtle factual differences. All rights reserved.