We are all guilty of bias. It is part of being human.
One of the issues facing women in business is continued stereotyping , unconscious bias and the unintended consequences that result. This is one of the most difficult issues organizations face when they are working on culture shifts that must take place if women are to participate on an even playing field. The most difficult aspect of this issue is the fact that so much of our bias is unconscious.
I was on a plane recently which was delayed because a crew member had lost their identification and we could not take off unless she found it. She apologized profusely over the intercom several times as we sat on the plane waiting. Many individuals seated around me began to grumble and discuss how terrible this was and how xxx airline was going down the drain. Several others talked about making formal complaints regarding the very unorganized and incompetent flight attendant that was at fault. This discussion went on for about twenty to thirty minutes as the clock ticked. At long last the voice came over the speaker again and apologized and noted that we would take off shortly. At this point the woman came down the isle apologizing in person to everyone on the plane. There was stunned silence as it became apparent that the invisible voice belonged to the pilot and not a flight attendant.
We all suffer from bias and most often we are not even aware of where it came from and how it is impacting us. Unconscious bias is at the foundation of so many of the micro-inequities that make a tangible difference in careers over the course of just a short time.
We can begin to break down bias with some effective strategies. Organizations can begin to use various types of media to raise awareness about bias, what it is, why it exists and why everyone sees the world with frameworks that are in essence the source of bias. Meetings, gatherings and existing manager training should include information about bias and the expectation that managers will work to enhance their awareness about our own bias. Skill building can be provided to teach managers how bias may impact our decision making. Creating non threatening messaging about the fact that bias very often exists unconsciously and without intent to cause harm. In fact many times bias may be present with positive intent yet cause damage. Finally, exposing individuals to experiences that immediately contradict the bias they struggle with is very powerful. As an example: cross mentoring programs involving diversity of all types can build shared understandings that have the power to break down bias. Regularly bringing visibility to examples of role models that immediately contradict commonly held bias is another example.
There are solutions …consistency and persistance are all that are required.
I’ve seen unconscious gender bias in place on so many occasions that I see this as a much more important issue to tackle than glass ceilings. Why in talent and succession planning meetings do people leaders still discuss a woman’s marital status and whether she has kids (or is likely to have them) as an indication of her flight risk? (yes, it really does happen.) Why are men usually described by their people leaders in these discussions 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). Why do we still assume that leadership roles cannot be performed on flexible terms (when all the technology has long existed for work to be performed and monitored remotely and on flexible terms)? These are all examples of unconscious bias that I’ve seen in play time and time again. They perpetuate the stereotype that leaders are male, that their life revolves around their work and that the old way is the only way. We need to bring examples of bias and stereotypes out into the open and give women the confidence of knowing they’re not alone in experiencing these issues – this will give women the confidence and energy to keep pushing on when they’re faced with such obstacles.