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Seen, not heard: Obama's 'teachable' moment on gender bias

By Tanya M. Odom
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
  • President Obama caused a stir recently at a press conference when he called only on women
  • Tanya Odom: Women and people of color should not be invisible in boardrooms, conferences
  • She says unconscious or implicit bias influences our actions and biases
  • She thanks President for the "teachable" and empathy building moment

Editor's note: Tanya M. Odom, an executive coach, is a consultant on global diversity and inclusion, civil rights and education. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- President Obama caused a stir at his most recent press conference when he called only on women to ask him questions.

The event, in a way, is a "live case study" of what happens in boardrooms, classrooms and conferences around the world. There are voices, opinions, questions and life experiences of people that should be heard, but are not.

Tanya Odom
Tanya Odom

Imagine if those who were not regularly called on were paid attention. Imagine the potential transformation everywhere.

Women are the missing voices in U.S. workplaces. According to the Center for American Progress, women make up 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Women of color comprise 11.9% of managerial and professional positions, and 3.2% of the board seats on Fortune 500 companies.

Studies have shown that the problem begins in classrooms, where teachers call on boys more often than girls. Boys are more likely to receive praise from teachers, even though girls perform equal or better in school. This gender-biased treatment at a young age has effect on women when they grow up. It's no wonder women don't speak out as much as men in corporate workplaces.

What happens when specific groups of people are not seen or heard? The result is a potential default to stereotypical images and ideas (often imbued with unconscious or implicit bias) that can seep into our languages and behaviors, which can turn into acts of bias, microaggressions, or exclusion.

Emma Watson's speech on gender equality
Why so few women at Davos 2014?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, U.N. Women and The Rockefeller Foundation released the first-ever international study about gender images in films. Key findings include that the number of female roles in top-grossing movies has not changed much in half a century, and that few women are depicted in positions of power on screen.

The media exerts a powerful influence on our attitudes. How is it that our world has changed so much in the last decades, and yet, women still lag behind men in prestigious professional roles?

Invisibility is harmful. Moreover, people who might have intersecting identities (e.g., black women, Latino gay person) may experience "intersectional invisibility," which is just as challenging.

When a client and I were speaking about the lack of diversity at a conference, she paused and asked: "is that they do not want us" or "do they not see us?" These are important questions for us to consider.

Too often it seems that conferences I hear of or read about do not make enough effort to include a diverse set of speakers. I was recently invited to participate in a global innovation conference that labeled itself as a premier event featuring the some of the most esteemed experts. When I looked at the list of speakers, I saw a group of people that did not represent the demographics of the United States.

I politely declined the invitation, and wrote a message stating that with good conscience I could not share the information with clients or colleagues due to the lack of diversity, and the fact that it is 2014. I never received a reply.

There have been publicized efforts to combat the invisibility of women and people of color. The Atlantic featured an article focused on men in tech who were asked to speak on all-male panels, encouraging them to point out the lack of women.

Howard Ross, a diversity consultant, had this to say about unconscious bias: "Unconscious or implicit bias is an issue that affects every person and every organization, no matter how inclusive people think they may be, or how diverse their organization has tried to become."

Civil rights activist Mel King often asks the following question to classes and audiences of young people: "If everybody else's story was in this beautifully detailed and colorful book, and your story was not there -- how would you feel?" It is a simple question, with a powerful message about the pernicious impact of invisibility.

I thank President Obama for the "teachable" and empathy building moment. The question is, moving forward, what are we going to do about this in our workplaces, classrooms and communities?

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