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Rugby, chess, TV and hidden biases

Three headlines caught my eye this week.

“Rugby sevens: Fourth straight title for NZ women”

“Girls don’t have the brains to play chess “

“Get women out of the kitchen, TVNZ told”

I was thrilled to read the first headline. Any team that performs well on the world stage deserves a heap of praise but there’s an additional level of pleasure because this women’s team plays rugby, the most traditional male sport of them all in NZ.

The second headline provoked a different response. To be fair, Nigel Short, the British grandmaster who was quoted in the article, did not claim that women are not suited to playing chess because of their inferior brains. What he said was women’s brains are not ‘hard-wired’ for chess, the inference being that men’s brains are. “One is not better than the other,” he said, “we just have different skills”.

It seems that gender bias is alive and well and for most of us it’s an entirely unconscious bias.

Unconscious biases are a tricky topic. We begin to acquire them as toddlers and they stick with us long after we have consciously expunged them, hence the unconscious bias. By their very nature, it is difficult for us to see our own biases but we can be quick to point out those of others.

Unconscious biases are not inherently evil, but they are limiting. Take the experience of Sabrina Chevannes, a British women’s international master who said “I’ve been asked if I want to play in the junior section; I’ve even had men refuse to believe I’m there to play.” For the record, barely 2 per cent of grandmasters on the world chess stage are female.

Unconscious gender biases play out every day in organisations stopping individuals and teams reaching their full potential. In the third headline to catch my eye, former Justice Minister Judith Collins told TVNZ to bring more gender equality to its news coverage. “We would like TVNZ’s news items to feature less categorising of women.” She was referring to the broadcaster describing women as ‘mothers’ irrespective of what other job they might have or focussing on their weight, appearance or the colour of their clothes.

If we are aware of our hidden biases, we can try to address our hidden attitudes before they are acted out in our teams or organisations. We can take stock of the strengths and differences of the people around us, and focus on the strengths that make them unique. How? By following these 3 steps.

Ask for feedback

Set your team an exercise to ask their peers what they see as their key strengths. Have them play back the top three strengths for each person.  You can also do this for yourself and ask three or four people you trust what they see as your key strengths. What makes you different from others?

Hone in on strengths

From the feedback received, focus on one or two key points that resonate with you or the team, take the strengths and start asking who could team up to help develop each other. This allows you to focus on what is working and make it stronger rather than always focusing on what’s not working. Often the strengths overcomes the weaknesses when they are developed.


Focus on embedding a strengths based approach by continually using and developing the strengths of each individual (and yourself) and call on others who you know are strong in an area that you or your team aren’t.  It will create a more motivated team and allow others to start to be more aware of their peers and what they have to offer.

We all have different strengths and when embraced, these differences can make a team and individuals incredibly strong and efficient. Just like a world class rugby team.


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