Unconscious bias contaminates workplaces

by Miriam Bell10 Oct 2012

Unconscious bias against women in the workplace places the female talent pipeline in peril, according to recent research – but this type of bias is not confined to gender, and extends to different ethnic, religious, age and sexual orientation groups.

The common perception tends to be that we don’t have bias, yet every single one of us have an unconscious bias against something or someone, Heather Price from Australian-based consultancy Symmetra said at a recent Equal Employment Opportunities Trust business seminar. “And it’s not only men who are biased towards ethnic groups or baby boomers for example. We pride ourselves on being rational and objective but some of it we are blind to. Our brains are bombarded with stereotypes.”

This unconscious bias is something we all internalise but these attitudes are activated without us being aware of it, she said. “Our major challenge is unconscious bias that has gone underground… There’s a plethora of research that shows unconscious bias stumps the way of many talented people. It contaminates all aspects of business behaviour.”    

However, there has been a huge shift in the rules of business and the rules of expectation, and leaders now recognise that diversity is productive, Price continued. “It’s not all doom and gloom as the good news is that we can raise that bias to a conscious level. When this happens attitudes and behaviours change to improve the quality of decision making processes which results in a far reaching impact on organisational performance.”

This is no easy feat though, as a recent survey in Australian banks found. “[The survey found] that women are just as ambitious as their male peers, but deep seated managers’ attitudes about women looking after children and lack of ambition results in more males getting promoted instead.”

And the ‘glass ceiling’ mentality isn’t restricted solely to high achieving women: looking at different ethnicities, there is a ’bamboo ceiling‘ in existence too, Price said. “Research done with job applicants CVs showed that if someone has a Chinese sounding name on their CV they need to send it to 68% more businesses than someone who has an Anglo-Saxon sounding name before getting an interview. Asians are the highest achievers in universities, so where are they in managerial positions?  The wrong perception is that they are just not leaders.”

Price recommended that to counter unconscious bias in the workplace business leaders and organisations should adopt the following tactics:

  • Develop familiarity with common types of bias so it is noticeable if they are happening, or start to happen.
  • Create a culture of psychological safety where unconscious bias can be constructively identified and discussed.
  • Employ internal reflection to assess personal and collective patterns to bias.
  • Create systems, checks and balances that encourage analytical over intuitive thinking.
  • Get everyone on board by leading the drive and engaging everyone in the process of preventing bias and embedding meritocracy. 

Organisations should also have comprehensive diversity policies and strategies across their talent pipe line – and compulsory reporting on age, ethnicity and religion, as well as gender – in order to deal with the problem, she said.


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