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Why unconscious bias is holding your organisation back

By Sarah Owens on 23.02.17 in News

Most of us now understand that a diverse workforce leads to more innovation, better financial performance and improved staff retention, however there are still not enough women in senior positions. Only 7 per cent of FTSE 100 companies have a female CEO, while just 26.1% of boardroom executives (this drops to 19.6% for FTSE 250 firms) are female - ranking the UK sixth in Europe.[1][2]

Why is this and how can it be resolved?

The most commonly cited reason for there being such a disproportionate amount of men in the upper echelons of organisations is of course the difficulty with being both a mum and a successful professional. While the UK's parental leave policies are far more developed than other advanced western economies, it's true that they still leave much to be desired - which is why just the week a cross-party committee declared that the government was not doing enough to tackle income disparity.[3] Many organisations struggle to accommodate flexible working, whereby an employee might work half the week from home; however there has been some improvement in this area in recent years.

Organisations aren't doing enough to provide employees with the flexibility required to be a parent, however there's a less-acknowledged and possibly even more impactful reason why women are not rising up the ranks at the same speed of men: unconscious bias.

Most of us recoil at the suggestion that we somehow might exhibit unconscious racial or gender bias towards our employees or colleagues but the fact is that a lot of us do. The reality is that we're more likely to hire someone who looks, sounds and has a similar background to ourselves; and this often translates into someone of the same gender.

Tackling unconscious bias is of course tricky since so many companies are reluctant to admit to any form of discrimination when hiring or promoting, but the results can be remarkable. Addressing unconscious bias requires leadership from the top as well as buy-in from employees right down the hierarchy - here are three steps your organisation can and should take.

1.     Blind hiring

Blind hiring means that all personal details such as age, name and gender will be concealed during the recruitment process. It doesn't guarantee that your workforce will immediately become more diverse, but it should certainly help the makeup of your organisation better reflect that of society.

This strategy is increasingly popular amongst more progressive companies and has been endorsed by the Confederation of British Industry, who has commented that it helps remove "criteria that could unintentionally bias managers, and give under-represented groups confidence that their application will be fairly considered".

Finding enough women for the fields we recruit in (advertising and marketing) is thankfully not a problem since women actually constitute the majority in this sector, however in order to improve the gender divide in certain industries where women are heavily underrepresented proactive hiring may be required.[4] This is a form of positive discrimination that requires employers to actively seek out candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

2.     Performance-related appraisals

Appraisals conducted purely on merit and performance might seem like an obvious point to improving the gender divide but you would be surprised by how often they are corrupted by unconscious bias.

There has been some fascinating research done around the language used in performance appraisals, revealing amongst other things that women are almost three times as likely to be described as "aggressive", while men's reviews contained twice as many adjectives related to confidence and assertiveness.[5] To help avoid such bias organisations should be conducting appraisals against a strict formula that judges employees on performance and achievement alone.

3.     Training and development

If your business really hopes to tackle the gender divide then it's going to need all of its employees to be clued up and on board too. Educating managers to recognise and mitigate against bias, while also helping them understand how to adapt their management style for different genders, ages, cultural backgrounds and so on is key to fostering an inclusive culture and making sure the company is not underrepresenting a particular group.

 It doesn't just stop with the managers, however. Creating a culture that is both inclusive and blind to bias requires participation from everyone within the organisation. It's about changing the majority and the way they think, instead of the minority (in this case, women).

Confronting your bias

The best way to defeat unconscious, and unfounded, bias is to have those people confront it by having to work with a diverse and talented set of colleagues. Unconscious bias is a problem that many businesses are unwilling to fess up to, but it's absolutely one worth tackling considering all the tangible benefits of diversity.