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Guilty of an Unconscious Bias?

Explore what is meant by unconscious bias and how this impacts women at work and how organisations need to ensure that performance management systems root out unconscious bias so as to retain high performing women

My teenage son set me a riddle recently: “A man and his son were injured in a car crash. They were taken to hospital as the little boy was wheeled into emergency surgery the operating surgeon said, “Oh no, that’s my son!” How could that be? Actually I had heard it before and so I knew the answer. The surgeon was his mother. It is funny to think that this old riddle is still doing the rounds. Is it still a surprise that the surgeon could be female? The point of my telling this is that in that moment of working out the answer, people still toy with the boy having two dads as the solution rather than the surgeon being female. This is a neat example of unconscious bias.

Another good demonstration of unconscious bias is the Guardian advert many years ago where the action cuts from a black man running very energetically (whether it’s towards or away from we aren’t shown) a white man standing on a street corner. The quick intercuts invite you to fill in the gaps of the story before you see the final denouement which is the black man pushing the white man out of the way as a piece of falling masonry narrowly misses him. The Guardian was promoting being open minded and of course the idea was for you to see the story in very different terms i.e. has the black man just robbed him? Is the black man just about to attack him? And then the true picture is revealed along with your biases. I always thought it was a very clever way of getting us to recognise that the possibility for unconscious bias resides within us all now matter how [open minded/liberal] we think we are.

These days people know better than to openly discriminate on the basis of gender, race or disability. However, what is much harder to control are our unconscious biases. These biases make some of the headline statistics harder to change. In the UK, the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology points out that the unemployment gap between ethnic minorities and the general population has been around 15% to 16% for the past three decades. Women are still a minority when it comes to senior positions. Women represent 13% of FTSE 100 directors and more widely, in Europe, just 10% of the highest level executives in the top 50 publicly quoted companies are female.

So what’s the answer? Offering flexible working to women during the phase of their career where they are seeking balance is critical. However, you need to be sure you are not unconsciously biasing your views of their performance as a result of them being part-time.

Mary Mercer is a Principal Consultant for the Institute of Employment Studies where she leads employer work and research on flexible working and performance management. Mary has seen that flexible working can be really successful where organisations truly believe in the business benefits as well as the advantages for staff. To demonstrate this, she suggests, organisations have to ensure their flexible workers are treated equally by business processes, particularly performance management systems. Flexible workers can often receive poorer outcomes and consequently miss out on performance pay or promotion opportunities.

Mary advises organisations on how to ‘equality proof’ performance management. Research shows quite conclusively that if you move from full time to part time there is a very high chance that your performance rating will drop a grade. This chimes very strongly with my own experience of coaching women who return from maternity leave on a flexible working contract.

Interestingly, the women themselves can see why they might no longer be considered as Excellent performers. Often the difference between being an Excellent and a Very Good performer is about ‘going the extra mile’, something that new mothers find virtually impossible to do. The trouble with this is that returning mothers who have been excellent all their lives in both their academic and work careers find it utterly demoralising to no longer be seen in that category and start to opt out and look for other areas where they feel they can compete on a more even playing field. If appraisal systems could distinguish between quality of output and quantity of output it would have such a positive impact on women who are trying to keep all the plates spinning for what is a relatively short period of their working lives – the ten years around the early stages of being a mother.

One of the biggest barriers against women sticking around long enough to make it onto the partner track or the board is short-termism. Ten years feels like a long time to wait until your investment in women pays off. Is it not just easier to replace her with a younger version who doesn’t have the same constraints or indeed a man who is powering ahead with his career in this middle stage? This is where we need to focus on what women bring to the table that is wholly female and that is missing in business if they are under-represented.

David Brooks, through his latest book ‘The Social Animal’, is having a big impact on government thinking on both sides of the Atlantic. Interviewed by the Sunday Times, Newsnight and The Today programme, he argues that we are not primarily the product of our conscious thinking and he propounds the importance of emotion in decision making. As women we have been fairly convinced of this for some time, although our male colleagues with their preference for things you can count and measure have not always been very receptive to this idea. This is demonstrated by some of the advice that women who I have coached have been subjected to. For example, “You must learn to be less emotional in business meetings – the client isn’t interested in an emotional response what he wants is hard fact and logic.” Brooks refers to Iraq and the financial crisis as evidence of how ‘male thinking’ can sometimes get it wrong. He argues that what counts in the new era will will be our connections with others and our relationship building skills. I contend that these are traditionally seen as female strengths and you don’t need to be at your desk from 7.30am until 8pm to demonstrate them.

To retain women, it is vital that organisations look at their performance assessment and root out unconscious bias. We need to think about investing in women as a long term strategy and begin to appreciate that the skills required today are ones that women often display more naturally than their male counterparts. Perhaps by doing this we won’t need to resort to quotas for women on boards which many see as the only way of circumventing the unconscious bias inherent in the system.

By Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director, The Executive Coaching Consultancy

June 2011 Newsletter Articles - quicklinks

Posted on: 19.06.2011

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