How Gender Bias Inhibits Progress and What Leaders Can Do About It

Innovation requires a diversity of thought and perspective. Women must be equitably represented in our industries and barriers to their full participation eliminated.

Before embarking on a second world tour in 1928, Anita Willets-Burnham came up with the idea to put wheels on a suitcase. (Bonnie Natko / Flickr)

In 1970, American luggage executive Bernard Sadow took four castors from a wardrobe, secured them to a suitcase, and added a strap. It was the world’s first rolling suitcase. Except that it wasn’t.

Anita Willets-Burnham, an American impressionist artist, may be the earliest inventor of the wheeled suitcase. Before embarking on a second world tour in 1928, she came up with the idea to put wheels on a suitcase. Her son implemented her idea using two baby carriage wheels and a telescoping wooden handle.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, Sadow had trouble getting department store chains to sell his rolling suitcase. The reason was due to two gender stereotypes: The first was that men would not use a wheeled suitcase because it was too effeminate. The second was the industry assumption that women always travelled with men who could carry the bags. It took 15 more years for the wheeled suitcase to go mainstream, taking off in 1987 when U.S. pilot Robert Plath created the modern cabin bag with wheels and an extended handle—similar to the telescoping handle on Burnham’s 1928 suitcase.

The marketability of the wheeled suitcase couldn’t be seen because it didn’t align with prevailing gender stereotypes. In retrospect, it is unimaginable that these stereotypes could override the capitalistic desire for revenue and profits.

Like so many industries at the time, men in the luggage and retail sales industries dominated leadership and decision-making. This meant that decisions were made through a single lens—the male lens, the white male lens in fact. A seemingly simple innovation that could have taken off during the early 1900s was delayed by more than half a century. 


A seemingly simple innovation that could have taken off during the early 1900s was delayed by more than half a century. 


A more recent example of gender bias inhibiting progress relates to the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Katalin Karikó researched messenger RNA (mRNA) for decades—but her efforts were repeatedly dismissed and devalued by her employer, the University of Pennsylvania. When she was unable to find research funding, the university demoted her out of her tenure-track position in 1995. Normally, university faculty who are denied tenure leave. Karikó stayed for eight more years but was never reinstated to her tenure-track position.

During that time, in 2012, Karikó published a ground-breaking study on mRNA therapy. Yet when the university released a promo video about mRNA COVID-19 vaccine technology, it focused on her male research partner, mentioning Karikó only in passing. Karikó’s tenacity brought forth a technology which is saving the world from the first large-scale deadly pandemic in more than 100 years. Yet her employer put up roadblocks to her work and failed to give her proper credit.

gender-bias-covid-vaccine-katalin-kariko
Dr. Katalin Karikó in 2005 at her UPenn lab. Her mRNA research laid the foundation for the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. (Courtesy Kariko/Francia family by way of ESPN)

What other innovations and breakthroughs are we missing because women are so underrepresented in certain industries and leadership? We can only imagine. Innovation requires a diversity of thought and perspective. Women must be equitably represented in our industries and barriers to their full participation eliminated.

How can leaders ensure that their organizations are not missing out on women’s ideas and perspectives?

This is a big question, but we can break it down:

  • Diversify workforce: Actively create a diverse workforce with equal representation for women at all levels. Upon hiring and promoting women, make sure women are fully supported in their roles. Ask women what support they need and give it to them.

  • Give credit: Make sure women’s perspectives are heard and acted upon. Give women full credit for their ideas and work. This includes making sure women are paid and promoted equitably.

  • Prioritize work-life balance: Life is not all about work. We all need time for our families and personal pursuits. Consider flexible work schedules, remote work, and four-day work-weeks to ease the burden on caregivers, who are disproportionately women. Provide paid family leave to everyone and make sure that the careers of those who use it are not penalized.

  • Establish safe reporting channels: Do not tolerate harassment in the organization. Setup safe and confidential mechanisms for employees to report bad behavior. Then act on those reports to stop harassing behavior and remove the perpetrators if necessary. Do not blame or sideline victims.

  • Understand that women have options: In 2013, Dr. Karikó left the University of Pennsylvania for a senior vice president role at BioNTech, which later partnered with Pfizer to make the first COVID-19 vaccine based on her breakthrough mRNA technology. Recognize that women have choices in where they work and if you don’t recognize women’s talent, it will be your loss; they will take their skills and ideas elsewhere. 

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About

Amy Diehl, PhD is chief information officer at Wilson College and a workplace gender bias expert and consultant. Find her on Twitter at @amydiehl.