International Women’s Day 2022: How do we #BreakTheBias?

International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is also a day that marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. This year’s campaign theme is #BreakTheBias and aims to bring conscious attention to the challenges that still need to be addressed as we strive for women’s equality.

Building on our voices of women in tech series from last year, we invited two members of our board of directorsMartina Hund-Mejean and Sheila FitzPatrick — alongside our Board Observer and Mastercard’s Chief Data Officer, JoAnn Stonier, to share their insights on workplace challenges and collective efforts to drive change.

“You’re not going to succeed if you’re not being your true self…”

Sheila FitzPatrick is considered one of the world’s leading experts in data privacy laws and has been honored as one of Silicon Valley’s Women of Influence. Sheila says she was “fortunate to have a strong male” in her life growing up, crediting her father for her limitless, can-do attitude: “My father always said to me: you can do whatever you want. Just because you’re female, doesn’t mean you can’t do what the boys do.”

While the progress made towards women’s equality over the years is certainly worth recognizing, Sheila recalls starting her career in the male-dominated defense industry back in the 80s, where she was the only female in a privacy team of 240 people and found that she was “treated more as an assistant than an equal”. However, Sheila took the opportunities to carve out her own career path by stepping up for projects that others didn’t want to do and learning from mentors – both male and female.

“Mentoring is so important”, says Sheila when asked what organizations can do to help bridge the gender gap. Stressing the importance of training and providing opportunities to women, Sheila encourages companies to “help women find their passions” and “recognize qualities that they don’t see in themselves”.

Touching on the strengths of the female role models who have had an impact on her own career, Sheila asserts that those she admires most “are those that are the same person at work as they are outside of work”. Some women “almost feel like they have to take on the personality of their male counterparts to be successful… But at some point, frustrations are going to build, or the true self is going to come through, and then you’re not going to know whether you succeeded by being who you truly were or because of this act you were playing: this person you thought everyone wanted you to be.”

“When you have a relatively diverse leadership team, they call you out on biases…”

Having gained extensive experience across business, tech and finance, most notably serving as the Chief Financial Officer at Mastercard for over a decade, Martina Hund-Mejean certainly noticed the “lack of female leadership” opportunities as she navigated workplaces challenges and gained respect as an industry leader.

Martina points out that we all have bias, and we all need to “recognize and work” on these biases, but stresses that it is important to “voice your concerns in the right way” to overcome workplace obstacles. She recalls an earlier chapter in her career, working as the top finance person for General Motors. Martina’s role required her to be part of contract negotiations, “but the negotiations never happened in the room, and I was never invited”. Martina says she cannot say whether this was because she was the only woman, but what she did observe and address was the fact that “it was all men negotiating – and they negotiated in the bathroom”. She says that it took “stamina, strength, coaching and advice” to overcome these kinds of issues, and that it is important for women not to shy away from seeking that change in workplace environments. 

When offering insight on how we can bridge the gender gap, Martina encourages companies to ask themselves the question: “How do you hire and how do you promote?” There’s a need to look at the entire process, right from the beginning of the journey through to long-term talent retention. “A lot of companies still have job descriptions that appeal more to men than to women” and there is a need to remove the bias from those descriptions before looking at “how your managers are interviewing” and how you are ensuring that they “all understand and love the diversity” that broadens our own views as individuals and as a collective. Feeding into this, Martina says that leadership discussions are key to calling-out bias and what really works is “having a diverse leadership team” and an openness to be challenged in a trusted environment so that the outspoken views are heard and not brushed aside.

Since “the future is digital”, Martina believes there is no better time for women to delve into STEM subjects and careers because all sectors and geographies will require you to “understand how technology works”.

“We start hardcoding these biases in society…when we actually want the opposite”

As a global data expert, a Board Observer to Trūata and Chief Data Officer at Mastercard, JoAnn Stonier really understands the nuances of gender bias and how a failure to address such bias can result in a distorted view of the world being instilled into new technologies and societies.

JoAnn observes that people are getting “better at minimizing bias and are more aware of creating inclusive workplaces”, but that “it is ironic that much of our language can be quite exclusive, not really inclusive, and often is bias against women”. Discussing implicit bias and the importance language plays in changing subtle forms of bias, JoAnn draws on a recent experience where she pointed out that an organization had a “Chairman” rather than a “Chairperson” of a board, and how this leans into women having fewer opportunities in the boardroom, fewer opportunities to lead, and perpetuates that mental image of a leader being male.

JoAnn stresses that there is a wide range of action that individuals and companies need to take, collectively, to close the gender gap: “we have to look at the pipeline and how we are developing talent”. She encourages companies to ask themselves whether they “have gender diversity in their candidate pools” and whether they are “creating opportunities across the employee base for men and women”. As important, says JoAnn, is looking out for gender bias as companies develop their products and solutions.

Using an accessible example from the Spanish language to demonstrate how gender bias can feed into products, JoAnn points out that El doctor uses the masculine pronoun in Spanish, “so if you leave it to the machine, all doctors would be male when it translates into English!” There’s a need to ensure that “we’re thinking about the implicit bias as we are creating diverse products and diverse workforces. And, it takes a diverse workforce to look for these things – so that we catch them and create products that are inclusive – not just from a gender perspective, but from all sorts of diverse perspectives because I think this means we innovate in a more inclusive, more creative way”. Predicting what can happen in a digital-first world when we don’t actively address biases, JoAnn highlights that “machines are learning for themselves and systems are learning. Therefore, we start hardcoding these biases right into society… when we actually want the exact opposite”.

JoAnn encourages young women to look at tech and data careers as opportunities to be creative and solve problems. “You can have a career not just in technology, not just in coding and programming, not just in data science, or enterprise architecture. There are adjacencies now. You can have a career that crosses technology and healthcare, data and finance, data and communications etc. Just about every industry will enable your tech and data skills to be put to good use while giving you a baseline skillset that will last well into the innovation future that we’re all trying to co-design together!”

There’s always more that could – and should – be done to cultivate a culture of inclusion of diversity; we must each take conscious steps to drive a collective change. We strive to #BreakTheBias this International Women’s Day to ensure there are less challenges for the women that follow in our footsteps tomorrow. How about you?