International Women's Day 2022: Breaking the bias is a matter of choice

5 minute read
OSEF 2022

This year, International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022 calls for action to #BreakTheBias in schools, workplaces and communities in a collective effort to create a world devoid of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

Women have come a long way since the observance of the first IWD in the early 1900s, where 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and voting rights. We cannot take these achievements for granted. And, we can definitely do more simply because gender equality differs significantly across countries, and the lived experience of women worldwide is varied. While Nordic countries top The Economist’s glass-ceiling index as the best places for working women, women in some Asian countries still must choose between a career or a family. This is because of gender-based institutional factors such as labour-force participation, the gender wage gap, net childcare costs and the availability, rather than the lack, of paternal leave.

Social psychologists warn of the effects of conscious and unconscious bias. Conscious bias refers to a biased attitude that one is aware of, easily observed, and potentially institutionalised in schools, workplaces, and communities. On the other hand, unconscious bias is a biased attitude that has been internalised, even by ourselves as women and hence operates beyond our awareness and control.

One of the many ways we can go about breaking the bias, whether institutionalised or implicit, apart from recognising that it exists and challenging assumptions, is the power of choice.

1. I choose to chase my dreams and build a team to support my pursuit.

The lived experience of women, especially those who are married and have a family, is that we play many different roles. Often, our identities are tied to some of these roles.

In my book, Be The Right You™: 15 Foundational Truths of an Empowered Woman, which was launched in 2013 to an audience of 3500 in a national congress, I asked a fundamental question:

‘If you are not a wife to your husband, a mother to your child, a daughter to your parents, a boss to your employees, an employee to your boss, then who are you?’

This question stumped many in the audience since it challenges the societal norm and the underlying assumptions of being a woman. These assumptions are implicit, which we as women have often internalised as part of our identities. Instead of choosing between a family and a career, I choose both – chasing my dreams and building a team, which includes my family, to support my pursuit.

During my last trip to Oxford in February 2022 to attend in-person Executive MBA (EMBA) classes, my son said to me as he was sending me off at the airport, ‘Mummy, I also want to attend a good school like you when I grow up. Have a nice trip.’ I was taken by surprise by my son’s sudden surge in maturity. He did not struggle; he did not fight; he simply accepted the reality that, on top of the Mummy role I play to him, I am also an individual with dreams. I am grateful that pursuing my dreams inspires him to pursue his.

Of course, from time to time, I fall into the familiar mummy guilt-trip of thinking if I work on myself, I lose precious bonding time with my child. The truth is, I become a better parent only when I choose to work on myself continuously.

Vanessa Tan at a lecture

2. I choose an institution of higher learning that supports inclusion and diversity.

In 2020, I was offered a place in two prestigious universities – a PhD in business administration in a local university and the second one, an Oxford EMBA programme at Saïd Business School. 

While both programmes and schools provide me precious opportunities to level up my knowledge and skills as a seasoned PR and communications professional, I was deeply attracted to Saïd Business School’s commitment to ensure diversity and inclusion, precisely, women’s influence and impact in the world. I am glad I chose the latter. In the January 2021 cohort, which I am part of, 41% of the 74 participants from across the world are female. Of the 36 nationalities represented, 23% are from Asia and 4 of us, myself included, are from Singapore. 

While I enjoyed learning from the knowledgeable professors in class, my EMBA experience was genuinely enriched by interacting and bonding with a diverse cohort.

My involvement in Little Place Labs, an Oxford-backed AI software company that helps satellites become smarter, is a case in point. What started as part of an Entrepreneurship Project on the Oxford EMBA programme became a lot more serious when Little Place Labs won the annual pitching event at the Oxford Saïd Entrepreneurship Forum (OSEF) 2022 just last month.

The team members are from different parts of the world (United States, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Sweden, Netherlands, India and Singapore), with varied vocational backgrounds, including both men and women. The common denominator among the founding team is that we are all current EMBA candidates.

Choosing a higher institution that embraces diversity and inclusion reaped many benefits. Firstly, I found a closely knit international team at Little Place Labs, where we care for each other beyond being mere classmates. Secondly, Saïd Business School has given me a platform to put my skills and knowledge in communications to good use, such as providing strategic counsel as Chief Communications Officer at Little Place Labs and working with the co-founders in delivering an impactful pitch at OSEF 2022.

3. I choose to say no to the good things so that I can say yes to the important ones. 

In many parts of the world, well at least in mine, the struggles of a working mum are very real, let alone taking on an EMBA programme on top of multiple roles and responsibilities. Even as we make our voices heard in collectively breaking gender-based biases in institutions, this IWD let us continue to practise the power of personal choice in uncovering and breaking implicit biases of what we have been conditioned to operate as women. 

We define who we are, not by how society defines us. Choices to tempt us to maintain the status quo are aplenty, but we will never be who we are meant to be by staying in our comfort zone. Let us have the courage to say no to the good things so that we can say yes to the really important ones.