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“Once they have kids, women aren’t as reliable and don’t care about their work as much as they used to.”
“It’s normal that tech is male-dominated, because men are better than women at math and science.”
While most of us wouldn’t admit to having these thoughts, they are examples of the unconscious bias ingrained in us all. Our brains are hardwired to make unconscious decisions, because the number of choices we face every day would be overwhelming if we had to consciously evaluate every single one. Unfortunately, this results in a tendency to rely on stereotypes, even if we don’t consciously believe in them. No matter how unbiased we think we are, we may have subconscious negative opinions about people who are outside our own group – but, the more exposed we are to other groups of people, the less likely we are to feel prejudiced against them.
Unconscious bias leads us to gravitate toward people who are like ourselves in terms of gender, race, age, income, personality type or some other factor. In France, a test was done to send the resumé of a candidate to both headhunters and companies, the exact same resumé, one with a clearly Arab name, the other with a neutral French one. Guess who got all the calls for a meeting? Left unchecked, this bias can become toxic, causing us to overlook the positive characteristics and high-potential of others simply because they don’t look, think or act like us. And it clearly isn’t good for business.
We can see this toxicity clearly in the continuing struggle for gender parity in the workplace. In its 2018 report, “Delivering through diversity,” McKinsey & Company draws a direct correlation between gender and ethnic diversity and profitability, confirming a continuation of some of the trends reported a full decade earlier in Catalyst’s study, “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards.” Yet the number of women Fortune 500 CEOs declined 25 percent in 2018, from 32 to 24 in just one year.
Knowing that having women and other diverse voices in leadership roles is good for business, we, as business leaders, are responsible for working toward positive change. As an executive with decades of experience leading international teams, I challenge my fellow leaders to take the following steps:
Examine your own unconscious biases. Once we recognize our own biases — yes, we all have them! — we can address the reasons behind them and make conscientious behavioral changes. For instance:
- Shake off any notion that leaders should look or act a certain way. If every manager thinks the same way, how will your team develop and embrace innovative new solutions?
- Make sure you have someone on your team who can view situations through a different lens and advise you. It’s not always easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you have little in common. A trusted third party can often help you see what you’ve been missing or misunderstanding.
- Get comfortable with dissent. Strive to surround yourself with people who hold opposing points of view. Being challenged, rather than having every member of your team agree with you on all points, is healthy; it often leads to more productive discussions and innovative solutions.
Speak up, or nothing will ever change. If every manager and employee were to speak up every time they observed an instance of bias in the workplace, we would have reached that elusive tipping point and effected lasting change long ago. Of course, this goes for sexual harassment as well. While the #MeToo movement has picked up tremendous momentum in the fields of entertainment and politics, corporate America has been slow to engage. As women leaders, we must be proactive in raising awareness and changing the rules of the game so that individuals of all genders are treated with respect and offered equal access to opportunities.
If someone who reports to you is behaving inappropriately with regard to either bias or harassment, speak with them directly about it, reinforcing the importance of embracing others’ differences. If it’s someone outside of your team, voicing your concerns to HR is usually a slam-dunk: once they’re aware of the situation, they should take appropriate actions.
Encourage others to speak up. This may be the most important point of all. No matter what type of bias your team or organization may encounter, the key is reaching a critical mass of supporters. For example, while women are on the frontline of gender bias efforts, we also need male allies who understand how vital unbiased behaviors are to the success of the organization. Strengthening your relationships with both male and female leaders will help you build a solid team committed to speaking up, collaborating and effecting lasting change.
Stop ignoring talent in large portions of the human population. More of your senior managers should be female. As a leader, you are responsible for correcting the obvious imbalance in the diversity of your workforce. Talk to your managers, make audits at division/country/team levels and force them to look at the absence of diversity, whether it involves gender, race, ethnicity or physical abilities. Facts are harder to ignore.
Is it possible to create a culture where unbiased behaviors truly become the norm?
Maybe not in my lifetime.
But if we can begin by recognizing and mitigating our own biases and then have meaningful conversations to help others build awareness and change behavior, it might just be possible to create a more inclusive environment. Until we reach a critical mass of leaders who are willing to proactively change the culture of our workplaces, biases will continue to proliferate.
As we begin the new year, I challenge all business leaders to take active steps to strengthen our organizations through diversity, drive innovation through our differences and constructive debate, and to build a more inclusive culture by extending opportunities to all who are qualified. If a majority of people in business become committed to making a few small changes around this important issue, the implications are limitless.
January 8, 2019 at 02:46PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs