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Workplace Diversity

Is Unconscious Gender Bias Negatively Affecting Your Workplace?

Oct 11, 2017

unconscious bias

It's time again for your weekly team meeting, and as John, Ben, and Sue shuffle in, you ask Sue to take minutes and keep track of action items -- like you do every week. She's just so good at it...not that her notes are as detailed as Ben's. But it just makes sense that she’s the one to keep the records.

The example you've just read could be perfectly harmless. Perhaps Ben's more detailed notes keep him from participating in the team discussion because he’s too busy focusing on recording what was said. And John, while hard-working, is a horrible writer and his notes rarely make sense. On the other hand, Sue easily keeps up with the discussion while capturing important "to do” items.

Want to make your office more welcoming and inclusive? Read: 6 Elements of a Successful Workplace Diversity Program

But maybe, the "you" in the above example thinks it makes more sense for Sue to take the minutes because…she's a woman.

Of course, the example "you" probably doesn't think that intentionally. In fact, you’re more than likely giving in to an unconscious bias based on gender stereotypes without actually realizing it. That's the potential danger of unconscious biases -- they're unconscious.

Being Fair Can Get Complicated

Returning to the above example, maybe you want to avoid being biased or giving in to gender stereotypes, so you stop asking Sue to take the minutes, instead always turning to Ben. But now, aren't you actively discriminating against Ben to avoid unconsciously discriminating against Sue? Perhaps Sue really enjoys taking notes and is upset that you've taken away that responsibility.

Does your head hurt yet?

If it doesn't, it might start when you realize that these potential biases apply to far more than just gender. Age, race, ability, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, religious affiliation, and countless other factors can play into these assumptions and stereotypes, leading to sometimes harmful consequences.

For example, one study performed by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that participants with "ethnic-sounding" names (e.g., Lakisha, Jamal) needed to send out 50 percent more resumes than their peers with more "white-sounding" names (e.g., Emily, Greg).

How Can Your Business Address Unconscious Bias?

Be mindful

One clear way to overcome unconscious biases is through conscious behavior. When assigning tasks, making hiring decisions, or creating policy, try to be as objective and facts-driven as possible. Are there any underlying assumptions influencing these decisions? Can changes be made to make the process more equitable?

For employment decisions, consider using a team or committee to evaluate candidates or job performance to limit the influence that a single person's bias can have on the process. For more menial or monotonous tasks, rotate the responsibility among team members rather than always assigning them to a single individual.

In addition, provide managers with unconscious bias training and tools to help them identify and compensate for their own personal biases.

Manage the individual

It may sound overly simplistic, but you will find it much more difficult to apply stereotypes -- consciously or unconsciously -- to your staff and colleagues when you know them as individuals. Managers should work to build personal bridges of communication with each of their reports, clearly establishing expectations and offering a means to both give and receive feedback.

Managers should also try to account for and empathize with employees' feelings. When there is open dialogue, workers will typically feel more comfortable expressing their concerns and frustrations, helping to identify unintentionally discriminatory behaviors or perceived slights before they can fester.

Document everything

When it comes to managerial or employment decisions, you should routinely record the reasoning behind these decisions. Not only will these records prove useful if a claim of bias or discrimination arises in the future, but if you can't easily articulate why you assigned responsibilities or adjusted roles, you may need to spend some time reflecting on the actual root cause of your decision.

The Next Step

Wrestling with the unconscious can be tricky, and an innocent situation can easily be confused with bias -- or vice versa. Ultimately, you want your business to be a welcoming environment for all of your staff, offering them the opportunity to succeed, and by creating fair policies and treating your workers with respect, you can more easily make that goal a reality.

To empower your staff to more easily deal with unconscious bias or any other challenges they may face in creating an inclusive workplace, request a demo of our diversity and inclusion courses today.

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