unconscious bias

Gender bias in everyday interactions

We often share examples - in our blogs and leader workshops -  of how unconscious bias and gender stereotypes impact recruitment choices and general business decisions. In this blog, we take a look at the impact on meeting interactions, through an example that will be familiar to many of us.

When there's only one woman in a meeting, it's not uncommon to hear a male leader say, 'I'd better not say something crass here because (insert woman's name) is in the room.' Sometimes a leader will apologise to the woman for swearing. 

We know leaders generally mean well when they make these comments. They've probably heard it themselves many times in their careers and consider it nothing more than light-hearted banter.

But the comments can have a negative impact, because the person singled out feels uncomfortable, not part of the in-group. And it reinforces the stereotype that men and women are different and should interact in certain ways. Those stereotypes actually perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace.

We were recently asked by a female leader how best to respond in these situations, and suggested she might try saying something like this after the meeting:

"I know you mean well, but it’s uncomfortable for me when you single me out with the comment ‘I don’t want to say something crass because (insert name's) here’. It reinforces stereotypes about how men and women should interact, and that's not helpful for gender equality at work. I’d prefer we use language that's respectful of each other, and that'll help all of us work better together."

Each time we sensitively make someone aware of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, we’re taking a step forward for diversity.

This is along the lines of the golden rules of giving feedback effectively: ‘When you … I feel … I’d prefer … the impact is …’

Some people will think this is political correctness taken to extremes, but eliminating everyday sexism is a commitment by male business leaders of some of our biggest organisations in Australia.

"We have to get better at responding to behaviour that is unhelpful and excludes people," their recent report 'We Set the Tone' says. "And we need to own what we say and take full responsibility for the consequences of our words and conduct. The same goes for our silence and inaction."

There's many outstanding recommendations in the report from the Male Champions of Change. One really resonated when we shared it recently with the LinkedIn community: reframe a discussion when an employee or candidate is assessed as ‘too’ anything – ‘too bossy’, ‘too soft’. ‘too emotional’.

It's not easy, but each time we sensitively make someone aware of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping, we’re taking a step forward for diversity and gender equality in particular.

We'd love to hear other ideas or ways to frame these types of conversations. 

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Tackling unconscious bias: changing processes and mindsets

While unconscious bias training gets a lot of focus as a way to advance diversity and inclusion, it’s important to remember the most effective approach is a tailored and comprehensive one that doesn’t just focus on changing mindsets.

Working from the premise that ‘it’s easier to change your processes than your people', Iris Bohnet from Harvard Kennedy School encourages companies to redesign their processes to prevent biased choices and encourage greater diversity in the first place.

As Bohnet says: ‘Start by accepting that our minds are stubborn beasts. It’s very hard to eliminate our biases, but we can design organisations to make it easier for our biased minds to get things right.’[1]

That’s why, in our consulting work, we focus on both hard-wiring diversity and inclusion principles through re-designing organisational processes, and soft-wiring through leadership programs and education.

In our consulting work we focus on both hard-wiring diversity and inclusion principles through re-designing organisational processes, and soft-wiring through leadership programs and education.
— Dr Katie Spearritt

We often review recruitment, succession planning, and promotion policies and outcomes to determine whether unconscious biases are impacting decisions. We revise job descriptions and advertisements to ensure they have a mix of words typically associated with male and female characteristics, to attract a diverse talent pool.

We also work with clients to develop diversity goals and dashboards to track the objectives they set out to achieve.

How one company is embedding change

Adapting site facilities and re-designing processes to anticipate greater diversity. Photo: Getty Images.

Adapting site facilities and re-designing processes to anticipate greater diversity. Photo: Getty Images.

A good example of the combined approach to process and mindset change comes from one of our clients – the project division of a global resources firm with whom we’ve partnered over the past year.

This is an organisation seriously committed to increasing diversity and improving inclusion across all sites.

A working group of business representatives drive the initiative, with the team meeting weekly (virtually, across a number of continents) to share challenges and progress.

Each meeting starts with a safety share, and an inclusion and diversity share.

Some of the tangible steps the team has taken over the past six months include:

  • Refreshing induction and recruitment processes to reduce bias
  • Creating new employment brand visuals, including new posters and graphics in offices to reflect greater diversity
  • Setting meaningful targets for a more inclusive work environment and greater demographic diversity across their operations, and
  • Developing new infrastructure guidelines to design more inclusive mine/project site facilities.
You can’t be what you can’t see.

The guidelines for upgrading or designing new facilities build on the simple notion that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ – in other words, adapt our facilities now to anticipate greater diversity.

The guidelines include facilities to improve gender inclusion, accessibility, and spaces to support employees to meet diverse religious, cultural and spiritual needs. Provisions for flexible working arrangements are there too.

These inclusive design principles will be familiar to those working in financial and professional services firms, but they’re far less common in traditional resources or manufacturing organisations in Australia. In fact, they remain challenging concepts for many, given the historically male-dominated Anglo workforces. 

Along with these tangible changes, leaders have taken part in education programs to build inclusive leadership capability and reduce bias - the soft-wiring that's part of building awareness and driving behavioural change.

The progress that's already occurring across this operation is evidence of the value of a mix of initiatives, tailored to the organisation’s specific challenges.  

We're reminded of the advice from global consulting firm McKinsey on diversity and inclusion: ‘There is no single way to make change happen; companies need a whole ecosystem of measures’[2].

 

Katie Spearritt is CEO of Diversity Partners. For more information on our services, please contact us at info@diversitypartners.com.au.


Did you know?

  • The gender of the people currently doing the role will influence who is seen as most suitable for it

  • Where someone behaves in a stereotype-inconsistent way, they will be less likely to be hired or promoted.

Source: Binna and Jo Kandola, The Invention of Difference: the story of gender bias at work, 2013


References

[1] Iris Bohnet points to the well-known example of behavioural re-design when orchestras started having musicians audition behind a curtain, making gender invisible. This simple change helped to increase the fraction of women in US orchestras from less than 10 per cent in the 1970s to almost 40 per cent today. Interview with Iris Bohnet by Gardiner Morse, 'Designing a Bias-Free Organisation', Harvard Business Review, July/August 2016.

[2] McKinsey Insights, ‘Moving mind-sets on gender diversity: McKinsey Global Survey Results’, January 2014. (http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/moving-mind-sets-on-gender-diversity-mckinsey-global-survey-results)

When seemingly small things mean so much: inclusive leadership actions

Many of us have probably experienced a thoughtless action at work such as not being introduced in a meeting, being left off an email distribution list, or others taking credit for our work.

By itself, this might seem inconsequential.

But when this happens consistently over time - like a leaky tap - it can leave those on the receiving end feeling isolated and excluded.

It was Professor Mary Rowe of Massachusetts Institute of Technology who coined the term ‘micro-inequities’ in the 1970s to describe small and often unintentional unfairnesses toward those who are perceived as different.

Micro-inequities are often the result of unconscious bias or not understanding cultural differences. They're subtle but erode confidence, explains Australian scientist Dr Jill Rathborne on micro-inequities in the male-dominated world of science for example. 

We all need to be aware, consciously, of these on a day-to-day basis if we’re to create inclusive workplaces of the future.

The good news is that there are many relatively simple things we can do to reduce unconscious bias and micro-inequities. Mary Rowe called these ‘micro-affirmations’: ‘tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening’.

It might seem obvious, but the impact of these inclusive actions on individuals and team cultures in our workplaces can be very significant. They help everyone feel a greater sense of belonging and reduce unconscious bias.

We all need to be aware, consciously, of micro-inequities on a day-to-day basis if we’re to create inclusive workplaces of the future.

Here's ten inclusive actions (drawing on research and discussions in our leadership workshops) that can make a positive difference to everyday interactions, meetings, and decision-making.

Inclusive interactions

1.    Acknowledge people when you pass them in the office, especially those not part of your ‘in-group’.

2.    Ask for permission before calling someone by a nickname (and think about who has a nickname and who doesn’t).

3.    Ask for the correct pronunciation of an unfamiliar name – make an effort to get it right.

4.    Be mindful that small talk at the start of a meeting may leave some feeling excluded - make an effort to invite everyone into the conversation.

Inclusive meetings

5.    Introduce all people in a meeting with equal level of acknowledgement.

6.    In your team meetings, appoint a devil’s advocate (and make sure to rotate this role) to reduce groupthink.

7.    Be especially attentive to virtual team members who dial into meetings.

8.    Consider when and where a meeting should be held and who is invited, to maximise diversity of thought and perspective.

Inclusive decision-making

9.    Next time you’re making a key decision, actively seek out multiple perspectives (especially those different to your own) to avoid confirmation and sunflower bias.

10.    Use different communication channels to receive input on a project or idea - some team members will be more comfortable providing a follow up email or direct phone call rather than speaking out in a team meeting.

These tips, and many others, are explored in our Inclusive Leadership: Challenging Unconscious Bias workshop for leaders and employees. We'd love to share more with you - please contact us for a chat.

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Uncovering the real diversity challenges and impacts

When organisations first contact us, some have a clear idea of the challenges they’re trying to address, such as a lack of cultural diversity or gender balance at leadership levels, or concerning levels of inclusion reported through engagement surveys.

What are less clear are the reasons behind these challenges, and how best to drive progress.

That’s why we recommend a ‘discovery’ process that identifies the cultural and structural barriers getting in the way of diversity progress and overall firm performance.

Organisations can then push forward confidently with a bespoke diversity and inclusion strategy and action plans.

The research we undertake for many clients includes a detailed analysis of existing policies, current demographics, external benchmarking, together with employee views captured through interviews and focus groups. We draw on global benchmarks and local industry knowledge to recommend appropriate solutions.

Recent diagnostics have taken us from mine sites to boardrooms around Australia. We’ve interviewed CEO’s, senior managers, paramedics, IT specialists, engineers, meteorologists, digital media entrepreneurs, among others, to provide an assessment of diversity challenges and opportunities.

Uncovering new opportunities

It’s particularly interesting when diversity opportunities aren’t immediately obvious to our clients. Here’s a few examples where opportunities highlighted had an immediate impact on service delivery, product design and employee engagement.

  • A global financial services firm realised their marketing programs didn't adequately reflect the needs of their increasingly diverse consumer segments.
  • Another diagnostic highlighted an overwhelming need from employees for education about engaging with different cultural groups in the community so they could provide more targeted and culturally-sensitive services.
  • One organisation discovered that managers wanted much greater guidance and tools to effectively lead flexible teams.
  • In another firm, the diagnostic showed a significant difference between employee perceptions of biases and leadership views of how the firm was tracking on diversity. Employees were strongly concerned about perceived in-action by leadership.
A global financial services firm recognised their marketing programs didn't adequately reflect the needs of diverse consumer segments. Photo license: Getty Images.

A global financial services firm recognised their marketing programs didn't adequately reflect the needs of diverse consumer segments. Photo license: Getty Images.

 

If you’re wondering what initiatives will best progress your diversity and inclusion objectives, going back to the fundamentals of ‘what are we trying to achieve’ and ‘what problems are we trying to address’ is often the best step to achieve targeted and effective solutions.

 

What we're working on

The team at Diversity Partners has been working on several client engagements in the first quarter of 2017. Here's a sample:

  • Diversity diagnostics for emergency services organisations, resources firms, water utilities and government agencies;
  • ‘Inclusive Leadership: challenging unconscious bias’ programs for organisations in the transport, rail, mining, manufacturing, legal, and financial services sectors;
  • Flexibility programs and toolkits for financial services firms and Australian Government departments;
  • Facilitating D & I Councils for a media/advertising firm and rail operator;
  • Strategic partnership with a global mining company to advance the targeted objectives and metrics for a major division;
  • Cultural intelligence programs to build the cross-cultural communications and capability of employees in the transport sector.