Leaders must do more to tackle unconscious gender bias

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Young smiling black businesswoman at the wall with stickers communicating with her colleagues

Hidden gender biases are rife within organisations despite the progress business has made in recent years. Leaders have a duty to look more closely at their culture if they are committed to inclusion and want to reap its benefits, writes Myfanwy Neville head of property at BKL

Myfanwy NevilleInequality is hard-wired into the social, economic and political systems that we operate in.

Women hoping to reach senior positions face a vicious circle of self-sabotage, gender conditioning and unconscious bias however many well-intended HR policies and diversity targets we implement.

I’ve noticed in my own organisation – as the only female in a partnership of 20 – my brain is wired differently to my male counterparts.

I used to find it intimidating. I would second guess and ignore my gut feelings until I realised my perspective was valuable exactly because it was different.

I challenged myself to ‘just say it’ for a week and the outcomes changed the strategic direction of our business. This experience showed me that I best served the organisation by being my authentic self, not someone I thought was needed in order to fit in.

But social factors also inhibit inclusion. This is illustrated by a 2003 study by Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson.

The pair gave half the students in an MBA class the biography of Heidi Roizen, a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

The other half were given the same biography, but ‘Heidi’ had been renamed ‘Howard’.

The students found Heidi selfish, more power-hungry and self-promoting than Howard. We expect women to be gentle and more family-orientated, so when they display stereotypically ‘male’ characteristics, we may dislike them for it.

Ambitious, driven women are unconsciously penalised. This is evidenced in the language used to describe women’s performance at work

Women are more often assessed (by men and women alike) by emotional rather than professional qualities, e.g. as ‘irrational’, ‘emotional’ or ‘bossy’.

Assertiveness and ambition become aggressive’ or ‘pushy’. One can predict how an ‘aggressive’ female would fare alongside an ‘ambitious’ male for the same promotion.

Simply making managers aware of this sexism helps as it is generally done unconsciously; bias training and self-awareness is key.

Women often doubt their abilities in a way that men don’t: I’ve experienced it myself. During interviews, women are more likely to be open about attributes that might affect their ability to perform the role; men are more likely to focus on their strengths.

Women may also be less assertive in their approach. Recognising this gendered difference is valuable; one must consider how men and women tend to present themselves to then choose the best person for the job.

Sometimes, well-meaning but misdirected “protection’ from line managers holds female employees back. I’ve seen managers stifle their female reports because “she isn’t comfortable with sales” or “our male client likes ‘banter’ in meetings”.

Comfort zones were made for pushing, and I’ve seen some truly amazing and sometimes unexpected results from women who are encouraged to adopt a growth mindset. 

Equitable opportunity and reward isn’t just a moral right but a practical one, too. Boston Consulting Group and the Technical University of Munich published research that showed inclusive businesses were more innovative. 

In today’s “innovate or die” culture, inclusion should be seen as a business imperative.

How to instil change

Leaders – both male and female – must make efforts to understand the effects of their language and actions within their business. This isn’t about blame but rather it’s about observing, asking questions and changing the culture over time.

Diversity and inclusion is a complex area, especially when we bring sexual orientation, race, religion and disability into the mix.

I would urge business leaders to proactively try to understand the issues within their organisation and have the courage to actively help their employees better understand the issues too.

Armed with knowledge, leaders can work at eradicating barriers and biases at work, and create an environment that enables employees to bring down their own personal barriers to progress.

Business as a whole has come a long way: in our acceptance, our thinking and our action. But there’s no silver bullet – inequality is deeply ingrained in our society and culture.

For this to change we need to step up to the challenge and think about what changing the status quo would really mean – to our personal lives, our businesses and the economy – and how it could meaningfully work in practice.

As leaders, we have an incredible opportunity to change things for the better.

Read more about diversity and inclusion from Director

Margaret Casely-Hayford: The ActionAid UK chair talks talent, diversity and building a great company culture

Grey London leaders discuss their diversity initiatives

Why everyone’s talking about the pay gap

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