Author: Avis Yates Rivers (Follow on Twitter: @SitWithAvis)
Last month I explained in detail what unconscious bias is and why it matters. This month, I’ll deal with how unconscious bias (or micro inequities) disproportionately affect women and people of color in the workplace. I’ll also explore what some companies are doing to combat this phenomenon.
If you didn’t read last month’s blog, I encourage you to do so before reading this one. It really lays the foundation and explains what unconscious bias is and why it is important to recognize and deal with it.
Certainly women have made inroads in corporate America, but a Pew Research Center survey released recently points at why women struggle to climb to the corporate world’s highest ranks—and often tone down their ideas, hide behind an agreeable façade, or leave the workplace altogether.
In fact, studies show that technical women leave the workplace at middle management 56% of the time. That’s twice the quit rate of men. The reasons most stated for leaving include an unwelcome environment or bad supervisor relationship.
Four out of 10 surveyed in the Pew study said that there are double standards for women seeking the highest levels of leadership in politics or business. They added that women have to outshine their male counterparts—and more than one-third of respondents believe the electorate and corporate America are not ready to put more women in top leadership positions.
Why is that?
Quite simply, as a result of a lifetime of absorbing the same images and representations, men are more likely, on television and elsewhere, to be seen in the workplace. It affects the way men see women and the way women see themselves. It’s not just men but women too who have ingrained expectations of workplace roles.
When you look at the representations of African Americans or Hispanics in leadership roles, the numbers are even more distorted; in fact, they are woeful! It is just in the most recent television season that we have more than one prime time television show or series that stars an African American or Hispanic in the leading role.
Consequently, women and people of color are not seen in roles of leadership – either in the media or in the workplace. As such, a bias is established in the minds of hiring managers that prevents them from selecting qualified female or minority candidates to fill certain roles.
The first step to solving this problem is recognizing that it exists and that it robs the organization of creativity and productivity. That recognition begins at the top as demonstrated by several corporate leaders of late. Here’s how they are choosing to solve the problem of unconscious bias in their companies:
One simple thing some companies are doing to eliminate the potential for bias to creep into their hiring practice is to strip resumes of names and other identifying information and just assign each resume a number.
Roche Diagnostics, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Roche Group, is aiming to make its managers more aware of unconscious bias. It held two bias acquaintance sessions with its senior and middle managers in recent months as well as a third at its national sales meeting this past January.
According to Bridget Boyle, VP of HR at Roche Diagnostics, in addition to ongoing training to highlight unconscious bias, the company broadened its recruitment and promotion policies in 2013. More than half of its lower level employees were women but their presence began to thin in middle management.
To spark change, the company instituted a mentor policy that paired 150 sets of employees over 18 months. It’s also strengthening maternity and paternity benefits and assuring diverse slates of candidates for the 750-800 openings it fills each year.
Royal Bank of Canada started an effort in May 2013 to raise awareness of bias among its 78,000 employees worldwide. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard University social ethics professor who co-authored Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, has held sessions for about 1,000 of RBC’s executives to help alert them of their biases.
In addition to these meetings, employees have access to tests developed by Harvard to assess their unconscious biases and apply their personal findings in workshops. These sessions, says Norma Tombari, RBC’s director of global diversity, are continuing in 2015 as part of the company’s “entire talent management decision-making.”
Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, announced at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show that he was committing $300 million to ensure his workforce achieves ‘full representation’ by 2020. This is a bold move not seen before in diversity initiatives, and he has put himself and Intel out front in terms of public accountability.
To be sure, their strategy needs to address a myriad of complex issues, but I applaud Mr. Krzanich for his bold leadership.
These and other bold moves are what is needed to improve the situation. Despite such concerted efforts, change won’t be sudden, however. It has taken years to get conditioned this way. It’s a learning process that has to be diligently undone over a period of time.
The good news is that companies have finally begun to recognize and acknowledge they have a problem. As we all know, that’s the first and most crucial step to achieving a change in behavior.