Women as ‘mentors’, but not judges: Reduce bias in organising competitions

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I recently volunteered to give my time over a weekend to an Entrepreneurial start-up event. As an established business woman, I was asked if I’d mentor teams that had formed on a Friday night, on the Saturday and Sunday. The mentoring remit was to help them pull together an idea; establish market viability, and develop a business plan for pitching to a panel of judges on the Sunday night.

In the run up to the event, several drafts of the list of mentors and judges were distributed. I noticed that with each successive mailing, the number of men on the mentors list shrank as would-be mentors pulled out while the number of male judges increased. On the first morning, I arrived to find that no male mentors had indeed arrived, leaving a small team of 4 female mentors and a well-intentioned male organiser. The event went well, and I enjoyed working with my team for 8 hours that weekend. I was especially delighted when my team won on the Sunday night, but I couldn’t help but notice the gender split; men were happier to volunteer their time for ‘judging’ (1-2 hours max) whereas women had been asked to take on the much more time consuming task of ‘mentoring.’

The event organiser is a friend in the business community, and no doubt this gender split was unintentional. However, it is evidence of unconscious bias, and one I’ve seen at other events where women are expected to do a time-consuming event organisation role but men are asked to do jobs that showcase their expertise as judges and headline speakers. Perhaps it also speaks to how men value their time and see their value versus women. In any case, it sends an implicit message women are support, but men are the stars.

Again, no one is ’trying’ to be biased, but it reminded me of when I started out consulting in this field, leaders would sometimes say to me: ‘We have gender balance: 50% of our staff are women. They just happen to be in secretarial roles while the other half are male bosses – so we are balanced!’  Avoid this deadly sin next time you are organising an event to ensure you have a mixed team behind the scenes, as well as on centre-stage.

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