How unconscious bias holds us back

by HRD06 Sep 2016
Those with an eye for statistics may have felt their hearts sink upon reading the 2015 Singapore Board Diversity Report, which revealed that among 676 SGX-listed companies, only 9.5% of board directors, 4.5% of CEOs and 3.3% of chairpersons were female. Further, according to the Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum, on a global scale of 145 major and emerging countries Singapore only comes up close to midway at rank 57 in terms of calculated gender gaps.

Despite the talk, despite the calls to action, it seems not enough is being done to break down the barriers facing females when it comes to senior positions. In a First World country like Singapore, where women are well educated, have a high literacy rate, and make up half of the Singapore resident workforce, this slow progress is galling.

Changing the status quo
Dr Sophia Zhao, Research Scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, says that many organisations pay lip service to gender equality but little more than that; it remains all talk and no action.

“With more media discussion on this topic, leaders may have realised and/or recognised the importance and benefits of having more women leaders. However, it takes more than individual effort to change the existing system, institution and culture,” she says.

Nevertheless, there is something that individuals and organisations can be mindful of: unconscious bias. Zhao explains: “Unconscious bias affects how individuals think of themselves and others as leaders. When women hold such bias, self-limiting thoughts may become their career blocker. Unconscious bias also affects how organisations define, select, promote and evaluate leaders. Managers may make decisions with no intention to slow down the gender equality progress.”

The Center for Creative Leadership’s article, Decoding and Overcoming the Unconscious Gender Bias Effect, which was co-authored by Zhao, clearly outlines the deep gender-based stereotypes that many people still hold:

“Traditional perceptions of leadership such as being assertive, masculine, and logical are often associated with predominantly male qualities. Women who want to advance their career often find themselves facing a double bind of being either capable or liked – but not both. A recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that women are twice as likely to be called ‘bossy’ at work than men; while men are just as likely, if not more likely, to act ‘bossy’. Moreover, bossy women co-workers are seen as more unpopular and less likely to be successful in the future, compared to bossy men co-workers.”

Things have improved – but only slightly
Since CCL’s fi rst use of the term ‘glass ceiling’ in the 1980s, more women around the world have successfully reached higher positions in organisations. However, the bias does not end when women break through the glass ceiling to climb up the career ladder. Even after they rise to a certain position, gender bias is still present. Another piece of research* using CCL’s 360-degree assessment data revealed that when women executives (those who have already broken through the glass ceiling) showed diversity-valuing behaviours in the workplaces, their performance ratings were penalised.

Why is this so? CCL’s article states:
“Valuing diversity highlighted their demographic characteristics and activated the negative stereotype of women that they are incompetent and nepotistic. There seems to be no winning when it comes to advocating greater diversity in the organisation – in fact, when a woman hiring manager advocated hiring a female manager despite the candidate being competent, the hiring manager got lower scores for both competency and performance.

“This research provides an alternative perspective to the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’, which describes a woman in a position of authority who views or treats subordinates more critically if they are female. It is possible that these women, amidst a male-dominated world, are acutely aware of the potential cost to promote other women – they may be seen as incompetent and accused of favoritism. Consequently, they hesitate to sponsor junior women.”

Busting myths
This unfortunate cycle outlined above reinforces a challenge that women face of having a limited access to both networks and sponsors – reinforcing what CCL describes as “a vicious inadequacy” that causes them to be hesitant to advocate for themselves or ask for what they want.

In addition, despite greater awareness of the effects of unconscious bias, there remain some lingering myths. The first myth is that all types of bias are negative.

“Don’t get it wrong – cognitive bias is indeed a gift of nature, providing us with the ability to make quick decisions when facing a multitude of information,” says Zhao.

She cites the best-selling book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that there are two systems in the brain – system 1 is unconscious and fast while system 2 is conscious, rational and careful, but painfully slow.

“No matter how hard we try, we cannot deactivate system 1 and our brains have the tendency to take ‘short-cuts’ – that’s why we have stereotypes and assumptions,” Zhao says. Another myth about unconscious bias is that we can’t change it; it’s part of who we are and these biases are engrained for life. Not true. “The good news about unconscious bias is, once you are conscious of it, you can correct it,” says Zhao. “Both men and women need to be aware of the gender bias they hold against either men or women. To develop more women leaders, we need to involve both men and women at all levels.”

However, to make a change, the first step is to be aware of any bias you may hold. This first step is also the most difficult, Zhao says. “One needs to understand how unconscious bias works at the personal level to reinforce the stereotype against some groups.”

Secondly, in the case of negative stereotypes, we must self-correct. When it comes to gender issues, the stereotype is rooted in historical and cultural values and is applied to both men and women. In the workplace, unconscious gender bias affects how we expect, perceive, judge and work with men and women leaders.

“When making decisions, step back and be aware of the unconscious bias,” Zhao suggests. “Ask yourself: will my decision be different if the gender – or other social identity – changes? If necessary, seek feedback from relevant stakeholders.”

Organisations can also take positive steps. Zhao suggests four key action points:
  1. Hold workshops to build awareness and common language among employees
  2. Invite feedback on the current procedures and systems if there exists unconscious bias
  3. Help build a network where people can support each other
  4. Nurture an environment where people feel secure to talk about the issue
She also suggests that ‘blind recruitment’, whereby personal details such as gender are omitted from résumés, is a good practice to reduce the negative impact of unconscious bias. Or simply, before the recruiting process, managers can list the competencies they are looking for. This exercise can help them focus on these criteria when they screen candidates.

“Recently, some high-tech companies in Silicon Valley initiated campaigns against gender bias – Google and Facebook are examples. The most important lesson to learn is this: make unconscious bias public and ensure people are aware of it.”

Just as critically, all leaders must champion diversity and inclusion. Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment is not only a woman’s responsibility. When dominant group members (eg men) value diversity, their performance evaluation is higher than those who do not demonstrate diversity-valuing behaviours. As CCL states: “Involving men in the diversity campaign can prove to be a win-win for all.”

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) is a top-ranked, global provider of leadership development. By leveraging the power of leadership to drive results that matter most to clients, CCL transforms individual leaders, teams, organisations and society. Our array of cutting-edge solutions is steeped in extensive research and experience gained from working with hundreds of thousands of leaders at all levels. Ranked among the world’s Top 5 providers of executive education by Financial Times and in the Top 10 by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, CCL has offices in Greensboro, NC; Colorado Springs, CO; San Diego, CA; Brussels, Belgium; Moscow, Russia; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Johannesburg, South Africa; Singapore; New Delhi- NCR, India; and Shanghai, China.


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