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Would you recognise unconscious bias if you saw it in your workplace? 10 signs to watch out for!

In much of the gender balance consulting I do, a consistent question comes up from the incredibly gender-focused leaders I work with: what is unconscious bias really, and how will I know if it’s happening here in my workplace?

This post is a gift for leaders – and for women who’ve experienced bias – to help in understanding what’s going on.  I encourage you to forward it to your own boss, colleagues, teams and – dare I say – spouses, and to have a conversation about it.  It just might change or at least challenge your thinking.

So back to the question: in truth, the second half of the question is easiest to answer because I’ve yet to come across a workplace where unconscious bias doesn’t exist.  That’s because workplaces and organisations are simply groups of human beings, all of whom have different life experiences and therefore different frames of references that guide their thinking and decision making processes.

And this brings me back to the first part of the question – unconscious biases and stereotypes are simply cognitive shortcuts that help us to process information.  We learn as young children that the sky is blue, fire engines are red, and so on.  And so we believe this always to be true.

Often this can be a good thing: these thought patterns based on experiences built up over a lifetime can help us to make more efficient decisions into the future (refer Blink by Malcolm Gladwell on how this can work to your advantage).  Unfortunately though – and especially in business – we can rely a little too much on our past experiences and get a bit lazy in the processs we follow for predicting or planning for future outcomes.  In a world that is constantly changing – and in business where innovation is the key – this can be neither helpful nor efficient, especially if we overlook the multitude of new options that have come to exist since our opinions were formed.

I believe this is certainly the case when it comes to the advancement of women into leadership and key decision making roles. In the current situation, 92% of all executive managers in Australia are men – middle aged and beyond – and in reality these leaders have a different frame of reference and life experience to the women working on their teams. 

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Usually, these very senior men in business are of an age that they were raised in a traditional household where dad was the breadwinner and mum took care of everything else.  Just as the sky was blue and fire engines were red, women ran households and men ran businesses.
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Add to this that these very senior roles require a ‘24×7’ kind of commitment and a common success factor for these top jobs is almost always the access to a high degree of personal support.  This creates a situation where most of these men have an EA or PA at work who takes care of his work schedule; and a partner at home who takes care of everything else.  His life partner has foregone her own career to support his skyrocketing executive profile and package, and to manage their family and busy household.  Yes, he knows he couldn’t do it without her and he’s possibly very grateful for her sacrifices.  And yes, he acknowledges it’s still a fulltime role for her – but it looks very different to those women on his team who are navigating their way through the corporate jungle. 

His frame of reference is built around his personal experiences and even where this extends to his professional experiences, it is a rare situation where he has ever reported to a female CEO or executive in his business.  In his mind, women just don’t hold down these kinds of roles.  Especially women who are married, and have children.  “How could they possibly do a big role, and all of the rest?” he thinks. And even if he “gets” that she might actually have the desire to combine a family and career, he’s concerned – as Donald Trump has said – that “She’s not giving me 100%. She’s giving me 84%, and 16% is going towards taking care of children.”

But not all women report to the C-suite, so what about middle managers – where is their thinking?  Yes, it’s true that more middle managers than key execs will have a partner who works, or still be single.  But these leaders are also modelling their behaviours on the people they report to – the precise executives I’ve just described in the preceding paragraphs.  These guys are the stereotype of leadership and it’s their behaviours others mimic if they want the greatest likelihood of career success.

Catalyst observed this in its terrific study (sponsored by IBM) “The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership”: despite the contribution and achievement of women in business, men are still largely seen as the leaders by default and, as “atypical leaders”, women are often perceived as going against the norms of leadership or those of femininity.  So they’re vastly in this no-man’s land (no pun intended) where they suffer:

  1. extreme perceptions and are seen as too soft, or too tough, but never just right
  2. the High Competence Threshold – and have to achieve twice as much to be considered half as good
  3. perceptions of being either competent or likeable – but rarely both.

Add to this that women have a different way of communicating their aspirations, accomplishments and desires in the workplace (and often at home, but that’s a topic for another discussion) and you’ll find that very few of male leaders actually understand what the women on their teams are looking for as their next career move.  They mistake a lack of confidence for a lack of ambition. And – meaning well but misunderstanding the implications – they’ve been known to send junior HR business partners to have “coffee chats” with the senior women on their teams to identify what sort of “stretch targets” the women are looking from their next role.

And when this fails to elicit any meaningful outcome, as the flawed process would dictate, they go back to their own experiences and assumptions and this is where the unconscious bias kicks in and works against women.

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The experiences and biases of these men often works against promoting the women on their teams – not because they think these women are incapable, or unsuitable for leadership roles – but simply because can’t draw the distinction between the women on their team and the women that have shaped their cognitive thinking.

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To these men, I offer the following advice not as a criticism but as a gift:  the world is changing and the women you work with and serve in your business don’t necessarily want the same things that your wife, your mother or your grandmother wanted in life.  They are smarter than the men they’ve been educated with (if University results are anything to go by); they are savvy with their spending and they want to be given the same opportunities that you’ve been given in life.

So how does this all manifest in the workplace, and what are the signs that unconscious gender bias and stereotypes are prevalent in your business.  Here are a few tell-tale signs to look out for (and yes, I have live examples of each and every one of these – they really do happen!):

  1. When looking to fill roles, you make assumptions that leadership roles cannot be performed on flexible terms (even when all the technology has long existed for work to be performed and monitored remotely and on flexible terms). If a role is currently performed by someone who takes leave of any sort at all – annual leave, sick leave, long service leave etc – then it has the potential to be performed flexibly.
  2. In talent and succession planning meetings, marital status and whether she has kids (or is likely to have them) are discussed – particularly in terms of identifying potential flight risks?
  3. In these same discussions, men may be described by their people leaders in terms of their competency attributes (the sorts of projects and work he’s undertaken of past), whereas a woman is described to those not familiar with her in terms of her physical attributes (what she looks like).
  4. You assume that certain roles are always performed by men or by women, just because they were in the past. This riddle from a Glass Hammer post sums it up perfectly: “A man and his son were injured in a car crash. They were taken to hospital and as the little boy was wheeled into emergency surgery the operating surgeon said, ‘Oh no, that’s my son!’ ” How could that be? The answer – that the surgeon was his mother – is usually overlooked as people would sooner conclude that  “the boy has two dads” than consider the surgeon is female. This is unconscious bias at its most basic level.
  5. When discussing roles with mobility or travel requirements, assumptions are made that females with children would be unsuitable or unwilling candidates.  This ignores the fact that she may have home arrangements in place to support travel, or may indeed be the sole breadwinner in the family, or even have a preference for travel (I know in my own case I’ll do almost anything for a few nights away on my own every month!)
  6. You describe women on your team as a “safe set of hands” and men as “strategic assets” or “rising stars”.
  7. You routinely organize team building events that include the traditional drinks after work – even though there are parents of young children on your team – and take the team for paint ball skirmish or rock climbing, even though you know the women on your team have no interest in sports or the outdoors.
  8. When marketing or pitching to clients, you cast your own bias or opinions as to the roles women play.  A classic example is this video produced by the National Broadband Network that highlights the career opportunities and flexibility NBN will bring to men; while the woman of the household is shown using her new bandwidth “to program the washing machine and the air conditioner… and still find time do a spot of shopping for a new dress.” A word of caution: 45% of the Australian workplace is made up of women and many of them have no interest in the laundry whatsoever!
  9. You have policies and programs in place to that use terminology and wording like “maternity leave” instead of “parental leave”.  Or worse still, you still don’t have a formal policy for either.
  10. When allocating bonuses, you give a bigger proportion – or in the worst cases I’ve seen, even all of the bonus pool –  to full time workers because as much as your flexiworkers do a good job, “they just don’t put in the same quantum of effort as their full time peers”. The point of working anything less than a standard week is that they should be putting less hours in – but still achieving the agreed outcomes for their role and terms.  Expecting anything other than this is simply unreasonable.

These are but a few examples of unconscious bias that I’ve seen in play time and time again and they all perpetuate the stereotype that leaders are male, that the ideal worker is always available and accessible, and that the old way is the only way.

In sharing these examples, I seek not to point the finger, but to raise your awareness of just some of the signs and behaviours to look out for, and to systematically overcome in building a gender balanced business. 

My experience is that recognition is the first – and most important step – because simply identifying the behaviours is often enough to drive behaviour change from within your organisation and culture.

And what about your workplace and experiences – is there something you’d add to this list?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – please share your comments here on the blog… or contact me if you hate using the blog!  I have a copy of Candy Tymson’s fabulous book “Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite S*x” to give away to the best comment received this week.


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