The Gender Bias Book Club – Reflections

Our first book club: ‘The Gender Bias – the barriers that hold women back, and how to break them’, by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton (Blink 2023)

We recently held our first Associates book club, looking at Sabrina Cohen-Hatton’s ‘The Gender Bias’ book.

It didn’t matter whether you’d read the book beforehand or came to find out whether it might go on your ‘to read’ pile in the future, we had some great wide-ranging conversations and a good time!

So, what’s the book about, and importantly what did we talk about? Well, the book (slight spoiler alert here!) is readable and powerful. Sabrina is a proud mum, a senior leader in the Fire and Rescue Service and never forgets living on the streets while trying to do her GCSEs and selling The Big Issue to survive. Her book is dedicated to her small daughter:

‘When they try to contain your fire,

Remember no cage can hold a phoenix.

Burn bright my love’,

She explores leadership, risk taking, perception, failure, change and learning with insight, inspiration and a wry humour: ‘When I joined the fire service at 18, only 1% of us were women. I’m now a Chief Fire Officer, and there are more chiefs called Chris than women of the same rank’.

It’s honest and hopeful: ‘The biggest change we can make is within ourselves and the way we view the world and the people in it…history will be all the richer if we have as many women changing it as men…whether well behaved or not!’

And she writes about serious stuff in a really accessible way – a good combo!

Her previous book, ‘The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision Making from a Firefighter’ (Penguin 2019) shares some of her early life and how it’s driven her to be passionate about rescuing others as she was never rescued herself. She offers insights into decision making under extreme pressure, all the time challenging assumptions about what women can do.

So what did we touch on? Here’s a flavour.

A key theme was how early gender stereo typing starts, typically between ages 5 to 7. It can be deepened and exacerbated by family expectations and behaviours as well as more broadly across society. We talked about how taking and managing risks is often viewed, positively, as a masculine thing. We shared childhood experiences of being encouraged and discouraged and how it had shaped our lives and life-chances. Between us we mentioned the study which still rings true about men applying for jobs when they’ve got 50-60% of the key skills and attributes, while women typically only apply when they’re sure they have 100% of these, and still lack confidence even at that point. We highlighted the different attitudes there can be to being a parent, with men often celebrated and praised for contributing to childcare, while women at work are implicitly or explicitly questioned about whether they can do both. We discussed whether it’s different now, and if so is it different enough?

Sabrina talks in her book about ‘fit’.  ‘Fit’ in the literal sense as well as in the norms and expectations in the workplace. She talks about meeting Mandy, a qualified Tornado pilot, who for most of her career, had to wear uniform designed for men as there were no female flight suits. Similar experiences were shared about Face visors for NHS staff during Covid, police uniform (now thankfully changed) and sports kit.

‘When you’re incongruent with someone’s expectations, it jars. It inevitably affects the way they respond to you. The idea that I don’t fit the whole package is something I’ve had to push back against my whole career. And I’ll be honest, it’s exhausting.’

This touched a rich seam of conversation about gendered attributes: ‘Assertive women are bossy and bossy men are leaders’ as well as the challenges of giving negative feedback as a female.

We looked at power – who gives it, who gains from it, who gets it and who is expected to have it.

We highlighted the importance of allies, both for and between men and women, as well as between women, as well as the challenges of being ‘the only’ where you are instantly and differently visible. We touched on all the associated ‘Glass’ challenges Sabrina mentions: the glass cliff, the glass ceiling (coupled with a sticky floor), glass breadline, glass cliff-edges and the ‘glass escalator effect’, where men in traditionally feminine roles ascend to the top of the field at a disproportionally high rate.

We shared some of the impacts of the interplay between ethnicity and gender.

Our discussion was rich, warm, and inclusive. It didn’t matter whether you’d read the book or not, the discussion just flowed and felt empowering and fun!

So, as Sabrina says ‘Although this book focuses predominantly on the perspective of women gender biases are real for everyone. These biases may be the reality that exists now, it’s not one we have to accept for the future. Gender norms that affect our chances of success are created by society; that means they can be changed by society too. So, let’s change things.’

If you’re interested in some associated resources we sent out to watch, reflect and dip into, please download them here: Inclusion Book Club Resources

And importantly what books would you like to have the chance to discuss next? Please do let us know! It could be Charles Mackesy’s, ‘The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse’, or ‘I am, I am’ by Maggie O’Farrell, or ‘Maybe I don’t belong here’ by David Harewood, or ‘Noughts and Crosses’ by Malorie Blackman, or ‘Rebel Ideas’ by Matthew Syed ….or what else? What’s something you want the chance to reflect on, listen to other perspectives and insights, and have the opportunity to share your own?

So what’s our next book club going to be about? We’re waiting to hear from you!

Rose Feb 24