Blue or pink, boy or girl? How Gender Biases Influence Work Environments

The SCORE Program in Colombia decided to conduct an experiment: we invited over seven-hundred people from different enterprises, unions and public entities to answer, by looking at old baby photographs, whether the baby in the photograph was a girl or a boy. What did we conclude from the experiment?

Noticia | 31 de agosto de 2021

Bogotá - The image is clear, even familiar. It is a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, when he was only two years old in 1884. The shoulder-length blond hair, white skirt, hat with feathers and patent-leather shoes over thin white socks imply, by today's conventions, that the person portrayed in the photograph is a girl.

However, nothing could be further from reality. The portrait of the young New York-born statesman evokes the color concepts that applied to babies' clothes at the time: dress them all in white, regardless of their sex, until the age of six. In the words of Jo B. Paoletti, a historian at the University of Maryland and author of 'Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America', what started as a matter of practicality —white cotton can be bleached— became a matter of "if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted".

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt

If we take a look at the color associations linked to babies' sex, as exalted by the hundreds of "gender-reveal" videos found on social networks, the truth is that, historically, it was not until the 19th century that the blue-pink debate made its appearance in the market. And in fact, according to an article published in 1918, for Earnshaw's Infants' Department, pink was the color of choice for boys because of its strength and blue for girls because of the delicateness it evoked. This conception took a sharp turn after World War II and remained embedded in people's collective memory thanks to advertising and factors such as the influence of the concept of being a United States Marine —the color blue symbolizing strength and vigor. Blue is for boys and pink is for girls. However, this was a fortuitous, if not whimsical, turn that could have been the other way around.

The real point of this essay is to make us ponder: How can photographs of babies from a century ago help us understand the origins of discrimination in the world of work today? Well, the premise is obvious: stereotypes about people's gender are present in things as simple as guessing the sex of a baby, and they start at home. As such, one of the priorities of ILO's SCORE Gender Equality Module (MIG SCORE) is to provide a toolkit of practical exercises to help individuals, enterprises and employer's and worker's organizations to approach and understand key gender concepts and, above all, identify the actions they can undertake to create equal opportunities, treatment and participation for women and men.

However, before talking about the model and the survey, we must understand what discrimination is. According to the 1950 Convention 111 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) discrimination is "any distinction, exclusion or preference which results in different, unequal or disadvantageous treatment which nullifies or impairs equality of opportunity, treatment and participation in the world of work (employment, occupation and training for work)".

With this in mind, the SCORE Training Program sent out a survey with ten black-and-white photographs requesting participants, both managers and workers, to individually respond whether what they saw in each photograph was a boy or a girl. The enterprises Forraje, Lácteos Campo Real, Redes y Conexiones Amaya, the State and Public Service Workers Union (UTRADEC) and the Public Employment Service participated in this exercise. We closed in on the photographs so that clothing would not be a deciding factor in making the decision and rather let the facial expressions, hair or facial features of each baby be the most decisive factors.

The results? From the 765 people who responded, no one guessed correctly the sex of all the 10 babies. Only two photographs were guessed correctly more than 70 percent of the time, while four were guessed correctly less than 20 percent of the time.

From the historical and psycho-socio-cultural constructs about the sexual differences between men and women, the way in which the feminine and masculine are interpreted, the ideas, values, attributes and behaviors that each should have of themselves and of each other. All these unconscious elements feed into the assignment and generation of expectations about the behavior of men and women. These are key analytical tools for understanding gender gaps.

Stereotypes such as men being "naturally" strong, rational, logical, self-reliant, decisive, objective and with initiative —characteristics in line with productive functions—, and women being "naturally" weak, sensitive, emotional, in need of protection and suited to reproductive and caring tasks are elements that can be intuited even from a photograph of a baby with a neutral expression as opposed to one that is smiling.

Biases are present and can be translated into differences in access to the labor market, the existence of feminized or masculinized sectors, unemployment, the wage gap, participation in boards of directors or decision-making spaces, violence and harassment, access to education and technology, unpaid work and time use.

If just looking at baby pictures automatically triggers unconscious gender biases, to what extent have these stereotypes permeated the workplace? That's one of the questions that led to the creation of the SCORE Gender Equality Module (MIG SCORE) to foster safe, healthy, inclusive and productive workplaces.

SCORE's Gender Equality module (MIG SCORE) features a toolkit of practical exercises such as the one described here that allows the methodology and materials to be used to develop training workshops on specific topics, as well as to conduct diagnostic studies on gender equality aimed at enterprises, economic sectors, supply chains and territories.

In the words of Bertha Lucia Carolina Trevisi Fuentes, National Coordinator of the SCORE Program in Colombia, during her participation in the French podcast, Les Voix du Monde, of Avenir en Héritage, "MIG SCORE takes all our previous experiences of working with enterprises and real people and produces a simple and practical model that shows very clearly the relationship between working conditions, productivity and gender equality, as well as demonstrating how this ties in with sustainability, generating managerial competencies and providing a model that can really advance gender equality in the workplace".

For more information about the MIG SCORE, we invite you to visit the following links:

Web page:
YouTube OIT Americas:
YouTube SCORE and MIG SCORE Colombia: