Imagine a CEO. Is it a woman?

In February 2022, Perspectus Global, a research firm, was commissioned by the advertising agency CPB (Crispin Porter Bogusky) to conduct research of 1,000 UK-based parents with primary school-aged children (5 to 11 years) and 1,000 UK-based children aged 5 to 11 years. The focus of the research was gender bias.

The research found that,

  • 45% of the 5 to 11-year-olds believed that nurses are always women, while 22% said a doctor was likely to be a man.
  • 60% of kids thought that being a plumber or electrician is a man’s job — and 46% of the boys and girls surveyed said that men always made better engineers.
  • 94% of the kids agreed that children should grow up to be whatever they want.
  • 82% believed that boys and girls can be just as good at the same things if they try.
  • 29% of the parents polled said that they had to explain to their child that men and women can do the same jobs.
  • 29% of the parents polled admitted there have been plenty of times when their son or daughter had expressed beliefs that reinforce harmful, old-fashioned stereotypes around men and women.

CPB used these findings as a base to launch its Women’s Day 2022 campaign with the theme of gender bias and using the ‘Imagine a…’ narrative device.

It is extremely powerful, and is actually interactive, despite being a static medium (poster). The first statement that starts with ‘Imagine a…’ makes people imagine a person they know/heard of as an immediate, subconscious response. The second line below poses an actual question that could either reiterate or contradict what you had in mind.

I found the idea very, very impactful in terms of making the audience react to the call-to-action (imagine…). But I have a lot to add in terms of the ‘imagine…’ exercise.

Imagine… you read about Elon Musk in the morning. A few seconds later you notice the ‘Imagine a CEO’ poster. If you imagined Musk because he was the last CEO you had noticed before seeing this call-to-action, is that a bias?

  • Imagine a construction worker.
  • Imagine a firefighter.
  • Imagine an angel.
  • Imagine a police officer.
  • Imagine a car mechanic.
  • Imagine an investment advisor.
  • Imagine a cricketer.
  • Imagine an astronaut.
  • Imagine a basketball player.
  • Imagine a garbage collector.
  • Imagine a pilot.
  • Imagine an executive assistant.
  • Imagine a God!

For all these, you may simply dip into your own personal exposure to arrive at one person or a mental image of a person performing these professions or appearing in the profession’s uniform/attire (for some of them).

If all of them were men, are you biased?

Then, consider the data:

CEO: Only 15% of CEOs running Fortune 500 companies are female. (Source)

Feminist: 61% of U.S. women identify themselves as feminists. Men are not even asked this question! (Source)

Someone crying in the office: Studies show that women cry 3-5 times more than men, globally. (Source)
A biological reason for this is that women have 60% more prolactin, a reproductive hormone (that stimulates the production of milk in women after childbirth), than the average male. Emotional tears are especially high in prolactin, which could explain why women cry more often than men. On the other hand, Testosterone levels, too, can stop men from crying. (Source)

Imagine someone in a board meeting: In 2020, 49% of companies did not have a woman on the board, an improvement from 60 percent a year earlier. (Source)

Imagine someone leaving early to pick up their kids: 70% of India’s working women struggle to resume careers after family leave. (Source)

Imagine a nurse: women comprise 89% of the nursing workforce. (Source)

By sheer statistics, you are more likely to come across a female nurse a LOT more often than a male nurse. And that lived-in experience may define who you think of when asked to imagine a nurse.

Given the lopsided nature of the real-world data, if you thought of a woman for ‘imagine someone crying at work’, are you biased? Or if you thought of a woman for ‘imagine a nurse’, for instance. The data is heavily stacked towards one gender, and hence your worldview too is likely to be swept up by that data and predominance. Is that bias?

The question is this: Is a simple ‘Imagine…’ a good enough yardstick to presume unconscious bias?

Things get significantly more complex when you add other factors beyond just the linear question of gender.

For example: Imagine a couple/married couple. Did you think of a man and a woman? As against 2 men or 2 women? Why? Why not?

Or, imagine a wife. Did you think of a woman? Why not a man, in a couple with 2 men?

Imagine a CEO. Did you think of a woman? Was she a woman of color? If not, why?
Consider the data: Only 3% of board seats were held by women of color, compared with an estimated 18 percent held by men of color. (Source)

The broader point of CPB’s effort however are 2 things:

  1. representation matters. Diversity matters. Truly.
  2. open your mind. Be open to the possibilities beyond what you know, have seen personally.

There is a tendency to brush all efforts towards representation and diversity as ‘woke’ and make jokes about it as if it is being done to win awards or to just seem different.

But every single attempt at representation normalizes the discourse about something that has not been done earlier or had been done because the creators before did not open their eyes and minds enough.

When the first women tennis players appeared in the scene, young girls of all countries would have aspired on a more basic level – that they too could become world-class tennis players and it is not a man’s domain at all. But people like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, besides being tremendous sportspersons, infuse hopes in the minds of millions of young girls who are not white that they too can aspire because they have idols to look up to. So this is an added layer beyond the gender lens.

Asian characters as leads in superhero movies may not be a big deal in the larger scheme of things—it’s just a movie, after all—but when Asians are being alienated and attacked in the US, such representation could be significant. Ditto with Ms. Marvel – a young, obviously-Muslim girl as a superhero… a role that was usually reserved for white men and women!

Or consider Asia Kate Dillon who identifies as non-binary and plays a non-binary character in Billions (Taylor Mason).

I had written about a sci-fi book recently – Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites. It features a same-sex couple and their kids call one ‘Ma’ and the other ‘Mom’. And the whole thing is treated with utmost normalcy. No one in the entire story even thinks this is unique or different and takes it as completely their choice. As it should be.

Take this news, for instance: For the first time in its history, architecture’s top award goes to a Black architect.

Every one of these breaks conventional thinking. And every such break in thought brings more diversity in thinking, normalizing swathes of new thought and action.

The other line of thought I had about this campaign was on bias in thought vs. bias in action.

Assume you did think of a man for a CEO, for whatever reason, if you do not have the power to act on it in any way, is that bias bad. I could argue that bias, in itself, is neither bad nor good.

Let me explain with a bizarre example:

Imagine a box. Is it brown?

Chances are… it perhaps is because most e-commerce boxes that come to our home are brown. Does that mean we’re biased towards brown? This totally harmless anyway because boxes do not have feelings, or lives that we may end up hurting. So bias, in itself, may not be something to feel guilty for.

Bias, after all, comes from our exposure, limited or diverse. The more we expose ourselves to the diversity in the world, the more open we become in our thoughts, and less stereotyping… and bias.

But there are people who have the power to act on their biases. And there are a whole lot of people who cannot, and do not – they may think of a man when asked to imagine a CEO without the context of gender bias or gender prejudice, but when primed to the context, they may be aware enough to the situation. The point perhaps is to be conscious of our biases when we have a chance to act on a choice. And towards that aim, campaigns like these are a good starting point.

And finally, a variation of the ‘Imagine a CEO’ that may be more purposeful could be, ‘Name 5 woman CEOs – any 5, any country’.

Or, the campaign consciously and proactively goes against assumed/presumed bias:

  • Imagine someone leaving office early to pick up the kids. Is it a man?
  • Imagine someone crying in the office. Is it a man?
  • Imagine someone at a board meeting. Is it a woman?

These could be part of a potential sequel to CPB’s campaign.