Tackling Gender Bias

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Much has been written about women in leadership. There are countless books and articles on leadership written by women specifically for women. Many describe what it’s like for women to work in male dominated environments and the unique challenges that women face within organisations such as the military.

These texts typically confront issues such as gender inequality, the importance of diversity, imposter syndrome and flexible work practices. Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series is an engagement platform that publishes articles on career and professional development for military women. These articles are typically written ‘by’ women but are certainly not just ‘for’ women.

As I began to read through these articles, I found them to be quite thought-provoking and, in some cases, relatable to my own experiences as a 21-year-old male loadmaster in 2007. This was a time when the pathway to becoming a loadmaster was limited to remuster (transferring to the trade from another mustering or specialisation), the minimum rank was Sergeant, and the average age was approximately 35. There were several loadmasters who overtly expressed their disagreement with my selection based only on my age. This made me feel like I was always being judged and criticised more harshly than my peers.

To quote Wing Commander Marija Jovanovich Another drawback of being the sole representative of any group is that you end up feeling like the whole group is being judged on your performance”. This is exactly how I felt as a young Loadmaster. Every time I made a mistake it seemed to reinforce to my critics (and there were many) that 21 was simply too young. Despite this I went on to have a very successful career that continues to present new and exciting challenges. Many of my peers at that time were applying a form of ‘age bias’ without any real rationale behind why they felt that way, it just wasn’t how things were done. 

Once I drew this parallel to how a woman might feel in a male-dominated workplace compared to how I felt, I began to consider how I, as a male leader, could learn to challenge gender bias. According to Major Lyndsay Freeman “Women are not the ones that should always be challenging the bias, so why are they the ones carrying all the burden? If we are truly to have gender equality, discussion needs more men at the table”.

Well, if someone would please grab me a seat, I would like to sit down.

This article seeks to give readers who lead female soldiers, sailors, and aviators an opportunity to critically reflect and hopefully experience an ‘ah-ha’ moment.

Prior to 2017 the Loadmaster mustering, like many other roles in the ADF, was heavily male dominated. I don’t think I was ever part of a Squadron that had more than one or two female Loadmasters. Today, women are well represented within the Loadmaster ranks, however; very few are yet to have obtained the experience necessary for senior leadership or instructional positions. With that in mind it behoves men who currently fill these roles to take the time to better understand how to bring out the very best in the women they lead. To do this we need to increase our awareness and be able to recognise a few subtle differences.

Confidence vs Competence

During my time as an instructor, I had the privilege of training some very impressive women. However, I observed a recurring theme that appeared to slow their progression – they seemed to lack confidence. Sometimes this was subtle, other times it was overt, but it became evident if you paid enough attention. Other instructors and I would often tell these female students to “have more confidence” and “back yourself”.

This observed lack of confidence was not as common in male students, and those that displayed this behaviour rarely completed the course. I assumed that this perceived lack of confidence was mostly experienced by females, and in some respects, it was.

What I didn’t know at the time was in the more extreme cases, I was observing Imposter Syndrome – where competence exceeds confidenceWhile this internal experience is not exclusive to women, it did appear to present itself in them more often. Interestingly, the opposite of Imposter Syndrome is Armchair Quarterback Syndrome – where confidence exceeds competence. You can probably guess which of the genders I observed display this one the most!

Both of these ‘syndromes’ present risk in the aviation environment. Those with Imposter Syndrome lack confidence, which means they fail to make decisions, hesitate to answer questions, and let nerves cripple their ability to think. On the flip side, those with Armchair Quarterback Syndrome exude confidence, can be complacent, act without thinking and feign knowledge.

I found myself judging the students demonstrating Imposter Syndrome (mainly females) more harshly than those exhibiting Armchair Quarterback Syndrome (mainly males). Upon reflection I realised that I favoured Armchair Quarterback Syndrome for the following reasons: Competence is far easier to measure than confidence, which is largely intangible, and I believed developing confidence was an individual responsibility. I could train competence, but I couldn’t make a student more confident.  

I have since learned that, as leaders, we have a responsibility to create an environment that develops and fosters confidence as much as it does competence. The object of any instructor is to guide students to the sweet spot between confidence and competence, regardless of which side of the line they fall. American psychologist Adam Grant refers to this as the ‘confident humility zone’.

Source: Grant, A. (2021, p. 49). Think Again. WH Allen.

Emotions and Behaviours

As our ranks started to fill with female aviators, I began to observe a particular emotional response I felt largely unequipped to deal with – tears. The first time I witnessed this was during a training event teaching a group of students how to marshal a forklift to the back of an old C-130E model Hercules. Everything seemed to be fine and then out of nowhere a female student burst into tears and walked away. At this point some readers may be thinking “Oh I’ve been there”, but let me tell you I hadn’t, and I had no idea what was going on, or how to deal with it.

When I sat down with her to discuss what had gone wrong, she had essentially become overwhelmed. She was thinking “If I can’t do this now in a controlled environment, how am I ever going to be able to do this at night using night vision equipment with the engines running”. It’s noteworthy to highlight that this was her first day learning to marshal a forklift – Imposter Syndrome strikes again!

The above example was my first experience of tears with a female aviator, but it wasn’t to be my last. Each time I experienced this I would explain to them that this was an inappropriate emotional response, particularly in the airborne environment. I began to associate crying as a female trait which created an unconscious gender bias that women were not as resilient as men.

When I critically reflected on this, I came to a realisation that crying (behaviour) was a symptom, and the cause was stress (emotion). I had observed stress in males time and time again, but it often manifested differently, and I was unconsciously more accepting of those behaviours.

Over the years I have witnessed men threaten physical violence, throw objects, participate in shouting matches and storm out of meetings. While these behaviours are far less common and accepted in ADF culture today, they all stem from a common root cause – stress. It’s surprising to think that I just accepted them as normal but was quick to point out the inappropriateness of a student crying. I may still do this depending on the circumstances, however I am far more acutely aware of other behaviours more common in men that are equally as inappropriate in the workplace, but stem from the same root cause.

Males tend to exhibit emotions of stress through behaviours that reflect frustration. They walk away, shake their heads and some even yell at themselves. Whatever the symptoms, the emotional root cause is often the same and irrespective of whether behaviours manifest as frustration or sadness, they are all evidence that the resilience muscle is being strained.

Coping with stress is critical to staying sharp in any dynamic environment and controlling our emotions is a learning process for both genders. As leaders, we need to focus on the cause and build resilience among teams. We must not misdiagnose the problem due to a difference in symptoms and an unfounded gender bias.

I hope this reflection of my journey is evidence of progress towards equality and gives readers something to think about. As American business executive Jack Welch succinctly suggests “before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself, when you become a leader, success is all about growing others”.

About the author:

Ryan Wilson is an Air Force Loadmaster and is the current Deputy Command Aviation Safety Officer at HQAC. Ryan formerly held category ‘A’ on the C-130J-30 Hercules and in 2017 was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. In June 2021 Ryan completed a degree in Organisational Leadership. Twitter @LDMSTR4.