“YOU’RE a professional?” Unconscious bias, it’s still here

Bella Abzug, a true professional
Bella Abzug, Library of Congress

The inimitable Bella Abzug always wore a hat. Not because her head was cold, or because she wanted to be ready if the Royal Family asked her to tea. No, Abzug—a lawyer, activist, and politician who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the U.S. Congress for six years in the 1970s—wore a hat because it marked her as a professional. Back when most of the women in the workforce were secretaries, that was an important distinction.

The 1970s—nearly half a century ago. Women comprise a significantly larger percentage of the professional workforce. Yet people still make assumptions about what we can and cannot do, based on how we look.

Tessa Ann Taylor, Senior Software Engineer at The New York Times, says she still encounters people who seem mystified by the fact that she can be female and an engineer.

Speaking at last week’s Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, Taylor said that people—okay, male people—have literally asked her “How are you a software engineer?”

Bella Abzug understood this mentality. She once said that while men have been told to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” for women it was “talk softly and carry a lipstick.” That may have been a guaranteed laugh line, but Abzug’s journal entries are less jocular:

“I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.”

Taylor may not be trying to “knock the crap” out of the corporate power structure, but she does do a lot of training to help people recognize the Unconscious Biases That Will Not Die. Or at least That Haven’t Died Yet.

Women of color in professional leadership

On the final day of the conference, I attended a workshop called “Leadership as Disruption: Women of Color and their Allies Moving Beyond the Boundaries,” led by Aziza Jones, MSW. Jones challenged us to identify strategies to support and increase opportunities for women of color to lead. And also to identify ways in which we can support them as allies.

The bottom line for all of this work: Be willing to have difficult conversations. The more we can share our reality—and understand our privilege, for those of us who have it in this crazy world—the more we’ll be able to connect with others. Whether those others are women of a different race, or the clueless men who ask questions like “How are you an engineer?”

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker

Talk. Connect. Use your power—for yourself and for each other. It’s time for us to change the world, don’t you think?


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3 thoughts on ““YOU’RE a professional?” Unconscious bias, it’s still here

  1. Aziza Jones

    Thank you for your perspective, Elaine. We have so much work to do and we can’t do it as individuals working in silos. I’m grateful for people like you who are willing to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations because that is where the work starts.

    • Elaine Bennett

      Oh Aziza! You got to this so quickly. I woke up this morning and thought I need to add Shirley Chisholm who of course served in Congress with Abzug. No time to edit today but I’ll get to it. But yes, the uncomfortable conversations are where the growth happens.

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