Gender Equality and the perils of Unconscious Bias

I consider myself a very fair person when it comes to my attitude towards gender equality in the workplace and in life in general and would see myself as very straight forward and open minded. I am a very public supporter of the promotion of women at all levels and someone who is very conscious of doing anything possible to make things more equal (yes I know, I sound a bit full of myself. Don’t worry there is a comeuppance on the way)

I was talking to a colleague about a high flying and super impressive person who works in our company, who happens to be a woman, and was singing her praises. She had recently won a major global award and is a shining light of achievement on so many levels. She is a fantastic manager and leader who has coached and developed a high performance team. Not only that she is a mentor to many in our business and on top of that is a fantastic mum.

So as we were discussing all of this I then said (and I cringe as I write this) “I don’t know how she fits it all in”.

What a terribly sexist thing to say. To which my horrified colleague rightly replied “nobody would ask that of a man”. That is absolutely true. I had fallen prey to the most fundamental type of unconscious bias. Then as if to completely ensure that I learned my lesson I came across a study focused on gender equality, or lack there of, in some careers groups and one of the critical factors listed was unconscious bias. A specific one “How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science” was very revealing.

In it several managers were asked to recruit people to run some mathematical tasks. The talent offered to them was an equal mix of men and women, with equivalent skills. The researchers found four things:

  • Male and female managers were twice as likely to recruit men, based on paper applications
  • When interviewed, the male candidates inflated their abilities while the women downplayed theirs. However recruiting managers failed to compensate for that difference, and were still twice as likely to choose the man
  • Even when provided with data that the women were just as capable, the managers still preferred men (who were 1.5 times as likely to be hired)
  • When managers knowingly chose a candidate who had performed worse on the test, they were two-thirds more likely to choose a male candidate

There was some excellent analysis on the study provided here and much of the commentary rings true. If we are going to properly empower women it must be a conscious effort and may involve shaking things up or even retraining people to leave behind the unconscious bias (even those of us who would have thought they would be subject to this). If we are going to generate true equality it is up to all of us to make the environment support this.

Consciously we need to do more!

Categories: Equality, Uncategorized

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