Conchita: Overcoming unconscious bias
Overcoming unconscious bias
Unconscious bias exists in us all. For true inclusion we need to become aware of how it impacts our professional behaviour. Organisations also need to educate us on how this can influence workplace culture
Well the Eurovision song contest is over for another year. This time I think we were all overjoyed to be part of a live event. It represented the collective celebration of us all seeing light at the end of a long, dark pandemic tunnel.
The Eurovision song contest has a particular significance for me. I confess to rarely watching, but in 2014 I was invited to a Eurovision party. Not wanting to be a party-pooper, I entered into the spirit of the occasion. The winner was a bearded, drag artist named Thomas Neuwirth, now known by her alter ego’s name Conchita. I have a confession I was horrified to find myself struggling with unconscious bias which I hadn’t even realised was there.
Hmmm…Why shouldn’t a woman have a beard or a man wear a dress? Does that affect his/her voice? No, not at all. What struck me about the whole affair was the entire world seemed to have overcome its own unconscious biases (apart from Putin and Balkan church leaders) to embrace him/her. I needed to as well.
In the intervening six years, there has been a growing awareness around unconscious bias. We are starting to make some progress but even now hidden prejudices and biases are surprisingly influential in determining all the decisions we make. These biases affect our feelings, actions, opinions and reactions. We are all susceptible to them and have to be aware of how knee-jerk, mindless stereotyping creeps into all aspects of our lives and impacts the way we interact with others. We have to learn to manage judgements we are perhaps barely aware of responding to situations and people in a neutral way. Even the smallest throwaway comment can perpetuate stereotyping and influence the thinking and behaviour of those around us.
Yet overcoming unconscious bias remains a challenge culturally and in our workplaces. In fact the process even meets resistance. Some organisations are abandoning awareness training because two-hour lunch and learns don’t produce immediate results. Changing the way manage our inherent bias involves deep change and that for most of us can be profoundly uncomfortable. It also involves a systemic change to unpick the processes and thinking that support our dominant cultures. And not many want to do that either.
Embedded in our organisations
With most organisations being male-dominated at senior levels, male values generally prevail to mould the corporate culture. Both men and women are guilty of unconscious bias in equal measure, but within companies it leads to a copy/paste selection and promotion process, where P.L.U. (People Like Us) with similar profiles to the senior men, are attracted, welcomed, groomed and advanced to the top.
In male dominated cultures P.L.U. syndrome kicks in with copy/paste selection and promotion processes
Women with children (or even without) are seen as potential flight risks and unreliable, while men with children are perceived to be solid and dependable.
It is assumed that women with children are not ambitious or geographically mobile.
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Soft skills are allocated a lower value as leadership traits and a concentration of women in the soft, “pink” functions of H.R. and P.R. perpetuates the culture where men are perceived to be better in tougher roles, usually associated with P & L responsibility key to the growth or sustainability of the business.
Women are relegated to “caring” and support roles.
And so it goes on….and on
Only this weekend Carolina a coaching client bemoaned her upbringing “I was raised to be polite, quiet and gentle because that’s how girls are supposed to be. Now when I need to speak up in my job it can be a struggle. When I do, if I am assertive I am labelled as “pushy” and a bitch“.
At a recent interview a candidate singled out the woman in the room to ask for a glass of water, assuming she was a secretary. She was the Business Unit Head. The men were her reports.
A man who misses a meeting to look after his children is perceived as cute and an involved parent. A woman isn’t getting her priorities right.
Women sales directors often tell me that if they take a male colleague on a pitch, clients will make eye contact and begin by directing questions to the man.
Megan an automotive design engineer had trouble persuading a client that she was the senior engineer working on the project. Women doctors often complain about being mistaken for nurses.
The male Caucasian boss of a quadri-lingual African lawyer taking an Executive MBA expresses surprise at her ability to handle the course content. “Is it because I’m a woman, or black, or both she asked?” Perhaps he’s just rude.
People thanked a woman for baking brownies for a departmental pot luck supper. The chef was her male colleague.
And so it goes on.
When we become aware of the small ways we all contribute to the perpetuation of these biases, only then will the chances of inclusion be increased.
What unconscious biases lurk within you? If you would like to test the unconscious biases you might harbour please take the Implicit Association Tests (IATs) designed by Project Implicit (http://implicit.harvard.edu). It reveals ways in which we associate things that we may not have considered.
I found I have gender biases.
If your organisation struggles with overcoming unconscious bias – get in touch
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