Unconscious bias lies at the heart of gender inequality

Jumping to conclusions is far too easy. Fortunately, it can be 'unlearned', says executive coach Harriet Heneghan.

by Harriet Heneghan
Last Updated: 08 Mar 2018

Equality in the boardroom is one of the hottest topics of 2018, and especially so on International Women’s Day. In fact, there are countless schemes designed to redress the balance of a global business culture in which less than one in six board members are female.

But what if some of the reasons behind that statistic – revealed by a global Deloitte report in 2017 - were not down to out-and-out prejudice or even to institutional sexism?

Business leaders, psychologists and sociologists are increasingly looking at unconcious bias to understand why progress has not been as fast as society demands.

Unconscious bias is where your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context impact your decisions and actions without you realising. Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising.

Many people call it a form of mental shortcut.  The brain has so much information to take in that it has to come up with a way of dealing with this complexity. 

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Sometimes this can be helpful but other times not.  It can lead us to discriminate against people and we don’t even know we are doing it.  There are indicators that this is a learnt phenomenon. One study suggests that babies as young as three months old have a preference for faces from their own ethnic group (this is not true of new-borns, indicating that this is a learned behaviour).

These biases are not always right and therefore can be problematic. In fact, Daniel Kahneman, who has written extensively about bias, famously called the unconscious mind a machine for jumping to conclusions

So how does this affect women in the workplace?

It’s easy to see how unconscious bias can affect the progress of women at work. Perhaps deep-lying assumptions are made around whether women want promotion or not, whether they have time to manage all the complications in their lives, whether they can attend anything ‘out-of-hours’. There could also be hidden bias around how women look, how they dress, how they communicate – in fact around all manner of traits.

Of course, it isn’t only men who are driven by unconscious bias, it is women too. All those values we build based on family and culture plus all the experiences we have been through in our life help set the level of our own ambition and self-belief.

Lisa Johnson, a Global Practice Leader at Crown World Mobility, recently wrote an interesting article discussing unconscious bias in corporations which send people to work on assignment abroad.

Statistics show that even in 2018 only one in five assignees are women and Lisa argues one of the reasons is that managers, both men and women, often assume that women wouldn’t want to be considered for an international role which would mean leaving family behind or uprooting them. 

The effect of that unconscious bias is significant – because corporations increasingly use foreign assignments to identify and escalate young talent, unlike the old days when it was a golden ticket for middle-aged executives with a big expense account. The result? Not enough women on the promotion ladder.

Fortunately, forewarned is forearmed – and unconscious bias can be tackled. In many ways it is an easier process than addressing more blatant prejudice.

In the workplace there are a number of things we can do to slow down decision-making so that people don’t jump to conclusions so often.

Here are some top tips:

Put it on the agenda.  Use focus groups to discuss what biases there may be in an organisation.  Encourage open discussion to ensure issues are addressed and solutions found.  People need to be made aware of these biases and held accountable for them, including leadership and management. 

Be aware of unconscious bias when making important decisions e.g. hiringMake accurate observations of the situation and see what is truly happening.  Hold the line; be aware of potential bias and have the courage to remain on the side of objectivity.  Then actively separate the stimulus from the automatic response; choose your response, intelligently and deliberately.

Consider unconscious bias training for staff; it is powerful to help people become aware of what drives their unconscious decisions.  It has been shown that 75% of people who have taken the Race Implicit Association Test show biases.

Watch your language.  Avoid words or phrases like: "the kid," "man up," "like a girl," etc. These phrases are biased and feed the subconscious biases of those around you.

Harriet Henehan is an executive coach and director at Black Isle Group.

Image credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock


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