LinkedIn's UK boss on how to tackle gender bias at work

Overcoming unconscious bias requires a concerted effort, says Josh Graff.

by Josh Graff
Last Updated: 12 Oct 2017

Diversity has increasingly become a priority for every CEO and HR chief - and is now undeniably proven to be good for business. Recent McKinsey research found that with 30%+ female leadership, companies can expect to add up to 6% to their net margin.

But more than that, it’s also just the right thing to do. And the data on gender balance shows that progress is being made, albeit slowly, and leaders now recognise that a diverse team will allow them to attract and retain high performing and high potential talent. The challenge is how to accelerate that progress and ensure that companies have the tools they need to fix the systemic lack of diversity that still exists across most industries.

It’s worth acknowledging up front that, to some, I can easily look like part of the problem. After all, I’m a man in a leadership position. However, as an LGBT business leader, I’ve seen the power of allies, and I believe that men have a positive role to play in the journey towards gender equality.

Don’t blame the pipeline - fix it

LinkedIn data shows that the number of women in leadership roles has steadily increased since 2008 – and that women now hold 25% of all leadership positions globally. We’ve also seen a 35% increase in job titles that include the word ‘diversity’, indicating how this is becoming an increasing priority for businesses, with resources available to make change happen. We’re seeing progress – and we’re seeing commitment. However, we can also see that there is still a long way to go. The FTSE 100 had just 30 female executive directors in 2016 – and 77 of the companies had no female executive directors at all.

We want to achieve gender balance at every level, right up to the top, but we know there is no way to do that without fantastic candidates. We accepted that we need to be part of the solution to ‘the pipeline problem’, a term that gives the issue an unwarranted mechanical inevitability. We’re solving the lack of senior female leadership by finding high potential women and giving them the training and support they need to succeed.

The intention gap – and how to bridge it

I believe that the gap between intention and achievement comes down to a lack of understanding about the challenges we face. Take LinkedIn, for example. We are a progressive organisation. A commitment to diversity runs through our values and our business model. I’ve seen first-hand the passion our leaders have to build a diverse workforce. However, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to be enough to achieve gender balance.

We were all familiar with the concept of unconscious bias. What we didn’t realise was just how ingrained and prevalent this barrier had become. Everyone suffers from unconscious bias, or ‘pattern matching’, even men and women who are the most passionate supporters of diversity. It’s one of the reasons why putting women into positions to make senior appointments doesn’t automatically mean that more women are appointed into senior roles.

You can’t will unconscious bias away – you have to plan for it

It’s hugely difficult to identify, analyse and address unconscious bias within yourself – either as an individual or an organisation. So bring in external providers who can help bring the hidden influences on your organisation’s decision-making to the surface. I can’t recommend this approach enough. It takes commitment, though. Unconscious bias is so deeply ingrained in every person’s psyche that it can take months, even years, to identify the ways it could be influencing decisions.

Another common misconception is that the balance of people applying for roles is a natural reflection of the people who might want those roles. It’s been easy for people to argue that the reason there are fewer women in leadership roles is because they are less interested in them – and therefore don’t put themselves forward. This is wrong, plain and simple. Unconscious bias and the signals that are sent to women about their suitability distort the playing field long before the interview process begins.

Removing the hidden distortions from the process

There are three forms of action required to overcome these distortions: insisting on reviewing a slate of candidates only when it is evenly balanced (even if this means taking more time), ensuring those candidates encounter a genuinely diverse panel of interviewers (crucial for tackling unconscious bias and sending the right messages to female candidates about your organisation), and striving for flexible working arrangements that can widen your talent pool of both men and women.

Perhaps most importantly, you need commitment to continuous improvement across your senior team. Leaders should be continually checking in, monitoring progress, and reiterating the message of why diversity is essential for the business. The best way to demonstrate the importance of this issue is by measuring everything pertaining to it: not just progress towards a gender balance goal but all of the KPIs that underpin it, like the balance of candidate pools and interview panels. The way that you measure something sends a very clear signal about how seriously you intend to manage it. That active management is essential for achieving genuine diversity at work.

Josh Graff is UK country manager and VP EMEA at LinkedIn

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