Anyone who knows me knows that gender equality is an important topic to me, and yes, I'm strongly in favor of it. And as the director of American Banker Magazine's Most Powerful Women in Banking & Finance initiative, I'm especially interested in seeing an equitable environment for women in the financial services industry. So you can only imagine how surprised I was this week to be accused of gender bias by two readers who saw what looked to be a double-standard in our most recent cover story.
Our May issue features a collection of profiles of six different bankers who might be described as the best-known bankers in town. These are bankers who have turned community engagement into an art form, and I thought they might have some good advice and inspiring stories to share with our readership. The group comprises three men and three women. (I didn't specifically seek to have it split 50-50 across gender lines, but it's nice that it went that way.) The bankers in the piece are represented on the cover by a woman, Elaine Agather, JPMorgan Chase's CEO for the Dallas region, who in my mind is the standard-bearer for the type of community engagement that our article addresses.
So where did I go wrong? Well, alongside each profile, we provided an information box with basic factoids and biographical highlights. To stave off monotony for our readers, I didn't want all six boxes to be exactly alike. So in some we highlighted the person's place of birth, and in others we didn't. In some we listed honors and recognitions that the banker had received, and in others we didn't. In one we provided the banker's best tip for managing volunteer activities; in another we provided an interesting insight that this particular banker had about using, or not using, social media as a work tool. And in three of the boxes, we listed the banker's age.
It turns out that the three people for whom ages were listed were the three men featured in the story. The women, it seemed, got a pass here. Now that it's been pointed out to me by two readers (both male), I know what it looks like. But it certainly wasn't my intention to see this broken down along gender lines. (And in fact the age of one of the female bankers profiled, Betsy Lawer, is included in the article about her — just not in the bio box accompanying the story.)
So based on the bio boxes, it appears as though we had no problem listing ages for the men but wouldn't have dreamed of asking for such information from the women. I'd like to think that this is sheer coincidence. But I also acknowledge it may be the result of unconscious bias — just the sort of thing that I hope to see rooted out of the working world so that women can be on as level a playing field as possible with their male peers.
The thing is, even women, and even women with very progressive views about gender equality, are vulnerable to the biases that have been deeply ingrained in us since early childhood. In our October 2011 issue, featuring that year's ranking of the Most Powerful Women in Banking & Finance, we ran an excellent, in-depth article about the impact of unconscious gender bias in the workplace. It referenced the online "gender/career" test at Project Implicit, where you can measure your own perceptions about male and female roles. I took the test back then out of curiosity, and despite my very conscious support of eradicating these kinds of biases, and despite knowing that I should be on the lookout for instinctual responses that might demonstrate that I'm also guilty of harboring these biases, I generated a score that indicates that I have an unnerving amount of unconscious bias to work out for myself.
So perhaps an editor's bias was the culprit here. Or perhaps this was nothing more than chance — chance that regrettably portrayed things in a way I didn't intend them to be portrayed. Either way, I'm glad to have readers who will hold us accountable for it, and I'm all the more motivated to make sure that our message isn't muddied, either by unconscious biases or by dumb luck.
Heather Landy is editor in chief of American Banker Magazine. She recently turned 38.