Last night, I was honoured to join Amita Chaudhury, Global Diversity and Inclusion Director, Unilever; Mrinalini Venkatachalam, Head – Public Awareness and Youth Initiatives at Singapore National Committee for UN Women; and Magdalena Poulin, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, APAC, AIG to discuss unconscious gender bias with members and friends of PrimeTime Business and Professional Women’s Association.
I thought it might to useful to share my answers to a few of the thought-provoking questions raised over course of the evening.
WHAT IS BIAS? WHAT IS UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?
Bias refers to beliefs or attitudes we hold that influence our decision-making and treatment of others. We can distinguish between two types of bias—unconscious (or implicit) bias and explicit bias. Unconscious bias refers to the beliefs or attitudes that affect our assessments and responses in an unconscious manner. Those biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, implicit biases are different from explicit stereotypes and prejudices that individuals are aware they hold but may deliberately choose to conceal for social and political correctness or legal restrictions.
HOW DOES UNCONSCIOUS BIAS IMPACT OUR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIVES?
The existence of implicit or hidden biases means that we often make decisions in ways that we believe are consistent with our conscious intentions, but in fact, our unconscious is driving our responses. The unconscious beliefs and attitudes we hold outside of conscious awareness and that influence our responses automatically do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs. It is possible for us to respond to others unfairly even when we believe it is wrong to do so. Cognitive neuroscience research has taught us that our assessments of others and ourselves are never as objective as we believe them to be. Similarly, other peoples’ assessments of us are never as objective as they believe them to be.
HOW DOES UNCONSCIOUS BIAS RELATE TO GENDER?
Unconscious bias means that even individuals (both males and females) who expressly deny sexism might make gender-biased assessments or act in a discriminatory manner without even being aware that they are doing so.
For example, an increasing body of research shows a consistent or systemic devaluing of women relative to men in professional settings, even by individuals who explicitly endorse gender equality.
PROVIDE EXAMPLES OF BIAS YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED IN YOUR PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL LIVES?
One of the biggest gender bias challenges I have faced at a personal level has been on the home-front in the form of the unconscious gendered assumptions and expectations held by my partner regarding the division of responsibilities for child-raising, homemaking and career.
One example that affected me professionally was the ‘glass border’. Similar to the ‘glass ceiling’ that women face rising to leadership positions in organisations, researchers have coined the term ‘glass border’ to describe barriers that females face in securing international postings. The contributing factors to both the ‘glass border’ and the ‘glass ceiling’ overlap—they include often unconscious and invalid assumptions about a women’s professional ambitions, risk appetite and competency.
WHERE DOES BIAS COME FROM AND WHY DO WE ALL EXPERIENCE IT?
Human beings process information via two routes—one route involves the unconscious brain and the other involves the conscious brain. The unconscious brain is what is working when we drive from to work in the morning following an established route without consciously thinking about where we are going and how we are using our body to operate the car. The unconscious brain draws on established patterns in our mind—as we repeat thoughts and behaviours over and over, they get automated in our long-term memory as cognitive scripts.
The unconscious brain is very useful because it uses firmly established cognitive maps automatically to coordinate our responses without deliberate cognitive effort. Automation enables us to efficiently process the infinite amount of stimuli hitting our brains at any one time and frees up mental resources for other tasks. While we are driving to work, we might be thinking about what will happen that day or be engaging in a conversation with someone.
The unconscious brain also processes information very quickly. Back to our driving example, if an object unexpectedly falls into our path, our unconscious brain would likely cause us to brake suddenly, often before we are consciously aware that something is in our path, and before we can consciously ascertain what that object is. Our unconscious brain relies on our existing understanding of our world that we have acquired from our past experiences to coordinate our behaviours.
The conscious brain, in contrast, is engaged when we deliberately focus on our mental or physical activity. For example, when we are seeking to solve a problem, are engaged in a debate, or trying to master a new motor skill. Back to our driving example, when we are learning to drive, or are taking a new route for the first time, we engage our conscious brain to coordinate our behaviour. Our conscious brain is slower than our unconscious brain and requires more cognitive capacity. It is difficult for us to concentrate on multiple tasks at a time, whereas a vast number of unconscious behaviours and thought processes can and do occur simultaneously.
Just like the mental map that develops in our minds of the route to work we repeat every morning, we develop mental representations in our minds of other patterns in our environment, including the patterning of traits and characteristics commonly associated with a particular group of people. Our mental representations of groups or categories of people are called stereotypes. Stereotyping involves taking what we learn from our social or cultural setting to be typical of a group of people from either our direct experiences with them or indirectly via the media or social discourse and assigning those traits and characteristics to all individuals belonging to that group. As we are repeatedly exposed to stereotypical associations from an early age, those become automated in our brain as unconscious beliefs regarding members belonging to that group.
For example, as we are repeatedly exposed to actual incidences or media portrayals of females as collaborative, nurturing and homemakers and men as assertive, competitive, and bread-winners, those associations become automated in our long-term memory. They are reinforced on a daily basis without us knowing, or thinking consciously about it. We do not need to believe a stereotype for it to develop as a schema, we just have to be exposed to it. Researchers associated with Harvard University have designed a test to measure these associations, called the Implicit Association Test. This test is freely availableonline, and anyone can take the test anonymously.
When we interact socially, our unconscious brain makes quick automatic judgments based on deeply embedded stereotypes. Those snap judgments drive our decisions about and responses to others. Stereotypes are adaptive in that they allow us to form expectations about others to guide our interactions with them. Our stereotype of the elderly might involve an expectation that they have poor hearing, and we automatically speak in a louder voice when we interact with them. We are likely not even aware that we are doing so. Our automatic social processing happens so quickly that it is below our level of consciousness.
Stereotypes provide a sense of order and predictability that helps to guide our social interactions in an efficient manner, freeing up mental capacity for other tasks. However, stereotypes can be problematic because they are often socially-constructed, invalid, commonly negative and arbitrary—they do not provide an accurate representation of all individuals belonging to that group.
Stereotypes involve the consideration of individuals as members of a larger homogenous category. They do not recognise the individuality and variation of people that fall into a category. Studies show that we consistently overestimate the similarity of people within a group as well as the difference between groups. We tend to think all women are more similar than they are, and that they are all very different to all men. The homogeneity effect has negative implications for women professionally because it causes assumptions and expectations about all women that might not be true for any particular woman.
However, the good news is that our conscious brain can override our unconscious brain. We can override our reflexive responses with controlled and conscious thought or reflection. When we are motivated to be fair and unprejudiced because of either a strongly internalised belief that it is morally correct to treat others fairly, or because of strong social norms and legal restrictions against expressed prejudice and discrimination, we can switch on our conscious brain and engage controlled mental processes to override automatic biased reflexive responses.
However, even well-intentioned individuals cannot override their unconscious associations all of the time. Because controlled processing is slower and requires more mental capacity than automatic processing, there remains a possibility for biased responding particularly when rushed, mentally taxed or fatigued.
WE AGREED THAT WE ALL HAVE BIASES. COULD YOU SHARE WITH OUR AUDIENCE WHAT BIASES YOU HAVE IDENTIFIED IN YOUR LIVES? HOW ARE YOU MANAGING THEM?
Gender bias does not only exist in an outward fashion—it can be internalised. Social expectations of what it means to be female influence how I feel about myself and my choices. Internalised bias can manifest as guilt when I feel I am not living up to societies expectations of ‘a dedicated mother’, it can manifest as low self-esteem when I feel I am not living up to unrealistic societal expectations of ‘a beautiful woman’, and when I started my consultancy, it manifested as a severe confidence crisis that I was not good enough or I did not know enough to succeed professionally, despite the fact I’d had a successful first career and I was, as noted by a close mentor, seriously over-prepared for what I wanted to accomplish. Internalised gender bias can have a quite profound influence on the choices that we make regarding how we spend our time, what goals we set and strive for, and how we feel about ourselves.
To help stem my internalised confidence crisis, I found it very useful to identify confident and successful female role models. Our biases are socially constructed and therefore are malleable. Multiple studies have shown that the accessibility of automatic and unconscious stereotypes is reduced by engaging in short 2-3 minutes counter-stereotypical imagery. In one example, being instructed to imagine strong women led to less accessibility of an automatic ‘weak-women’ stereotyped association as measured in the IAT (above). So, for me, identifying confident female role models and successful female entrepreneurs has been an important part of overcoming internalised gender bias.
WHY IS UNCONSCIOUS BIAS A PROBLEM FOR ORGANISATIONS?
Unconscious bias at work has significant implications—when we make decisions on who gets a job, who gets disciplined, who gets promoted, who we chose to develop, or whose ideas we listen to, we may be adding our own unconscious criteria to that decision. Bias can also contribute to hostile workplaces and bullying and decrease engagement.
By preventing some groups of employees or potential employees from contributing fully and equally to work practices, unconscious bias limits the strategic potential of a diverse workforce for innovation, growth in new markets and improved decision-making and problem solving. A large number of studies show that diverse and inclusive workplaces – workplaces where members of different social and cultural groups are both seen and heard—outperform homogenous workplaces.
With respect to gender diversity, for example, McKinsey released the results of its study on leadership diversity and corporate financial returns early last year. Results showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Here in Asia, a joint 2015 publication by Korn Ferry and NUS reported that Asia Pacific firms with at least 10 percent women on boards have average ROE of 15.4% compared to 11.8% for those that do not.
McKinsey has also looked at the global economic potential of improved gender equality;
- A “best in region” scenario in which all countries match the rate of improvement of the fastest-improving country in their region could add as much as $12 trillion, or 11 percent, in annual 2025 GDP. That figure is equivalent in size to the current GDP of Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
- In a “full potential” scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to annual global GDP by 2025. This impact is roughly equivalent to the size of the combined Chinese and US economies today.
RESEARCH TELLS US THAT WOMEN AT THE ENTRY / GRADUATE LEVEL OUTNUMBER MEN IN 60-40% RATIO. AT THE MIDDLE-MANAGEMENT LEVEL, WOMEN START DISAPPEARING, AND EXECUTIVE TOLES ARE HELD ONLY BY 20% WOMEN GLOBALLY, 14% IN ASIA. DOES THIS HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH MERIT, AMBITION, CONFIDENCE?
There are several contributing factors to the management gender gap. Part of the gap involves conscious choices that women make to leave the workforce, particularly after they become mothers. However, I think that some, if not many, of the women that leave the workplace when they start a family do so because their workplaces are not flexible enough to accommodate their changing needs at that time of their lives. It is difficult, for numerous reasons, for women to re-enter the workforce after a period of absence, although it is encouraging to note that progressive organisations are implementing return-to-work programs.
Related to the need for greater workplace flexibility are biased societal expectations, whether from schools, partners, extended family and even other mothers that make it difficult for many women to maintain a career after they have children. There was an article published in the Economist earlier this week noting that younger Asian women are shunning marriage and are increasingly choosing to stay single indefinitely and remain in the workforce partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Asian women, more so than their Western counterparts, are the primary caregivers for husbands, children and often for ageing parents; and even when in full-time employment, they are expected to continue to play this role. Japanese women typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours of housework.
Then, of course, there is the systemic devaluing of women in professional settings. Studies show that women are not offered the same roles or development opportunities as men because of invalid assumptions about competence and ambition. When women are offered stretch assignments and promotions, they have had to work much harder and longer for them.
Another contributing factor is that women experience a significant crisis of confidence within 2-5 years of being in the workforce. An interesting study by Bain consulting group in 2014 showed that nearly half of all new women employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 percent still hold that ambition; this compared with 34 percent of men who begin their careers confident they will reach the top and remain so after two or more years of experience. One consequence of this gender confidence gap is that women often do not put their hands up for stretch assignments or promotions. Recruiters report that the number of applications they receive from females relative to applications received from males declines for more senior roles.
LET’S GO A BIT DEEPER INTO THE GENDER BIAS? ARE THERE DIFFERENCES IN LEADERSHIP STYLES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN? HOW DO GENDER STEREOTYPES INFLUENCE PERFORMANCE EVALUATIONS AND PROMOTION DECISIONS.
The research indicates that although there are differences in female and male leadership styles, those differences are small. There is significant overlap in how females and males lead.
However, there is a large disconnect between leadership stereotypes and gender stereotypes. The traits and characteristics that we associate with effective leadership endorse stereotypically masculine traits like assertiveness, ambition and competition and discount stereotypically feminine traits like collaboration and homemaker. Our ideas of ‘female’ do not fit our ideas of ‘leader’. Because masculine stereotypes align with leadership stereotypes, a man is more likely than a woman to be assessed as a potential and competent leader simply because he is a man.“Think manager = think man”. It’s even in the language! Feminine stereotypes, in contrast, negatively interact with leadership schema.
Also, gender stereotypes involve expectations about how a man or women shouldbehave or think. When individuals (both men and women) breach gendered expectations, they are penalised. Consider the ‘double-bind’ or ‘assertiveness penalty’ facing women aspiring to leadership. Studies show that when women exhibit counter-stereotypical traits commonly associated with leadership like assertiveness, they are less-liked when compared with men exhibiting the same traits. One study showed women’s perceived deserved compensation dropped by 35%, twice as much as men’s dropped when equally aggressive in workplace communication. The assertiveness penalty places women in a tenuous position—to emerge as a leader, women must adopt traits consistent with leadership stereotypes, i.e. act more stereotypically masculine, but when women do act more assertively, they breach feminine stereotypes and suffer a likeability penalty. Not only do women need to work harder, but they also need to work differently—treading a fine line between masculinity and femininity.
A Stanford study illustrates how gendered expectations influence performance appraisals. Managers are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong, and their accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of team rather than individual efforts.
- Women receive 2.5 times the amount of feedback men do about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting.” Women were described as “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful” nearly twice as often as men, and women’s reviews had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements.
- Men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence and self-confidence—words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.” Men also received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome, and twice the number of references to their technical expertise.
If managers expect women to be more team-oriented and men to be more independent in their jobs, women are more likely to be steered into support roles rather than business roles that lead to senior leadership positions. Also, when participants in corporate workshops are asked which of two candidates they would pick to replace a top performer in their organisation, about 90% select the person described in terms related to ‘individual initiative’—the same words that are used more often often in the men’s performance reviews.
HOW CAN ORGANISATIONS MINIMISE THE IMPACT OF BIAS IN THEIR RECRUITMENT, DEVELOPMENT AND PROMOTION TO SENIOR LEADERSHIP?
Managing unconscious bias at work is problematic because, by definition, an individual is unaware of its influence. Also, we all see bias vested in others but not in ourselves as this maintains a positive self-concept. But we all have biases. Bias is inevitable as a result of social conditioning and cognitive processes. Studies show that even individuals who truly believe that they are non-prejudiced hold unconscious bias.
A critical step, therefore, in combatting bias is to make people aware of their biases and to equip them with strategies to mitigate their biases through unconscious bias training. However, although unconscious bias training is necessary, it is not sufficient for creating fairer workplaces. Combatting bias at work requires workplace cultures and practices that support the goals of unconscious bias training and encourage the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired in training back to the workplace.
Because bias is often institutionalised, it is critical that workplaces scrutinise existing cultures and practices for bias. For example, removing gender-biased criteria in selection, assignment or performance evaluation; asking people to justify their decisions with facts to help them move away from making assessments on ‘gut’ feel and ‘hiring for fit’; making workplaces more flexible; mentoring and sponsorship programs.
But that is still not enough. Stereotypes and related biases are socially constructed and reflect our experiences – what we see as typical and normal when we go to work every day. The only way to deconstruct gender stereotypes is to redefine ‘normal’, and that means getting more women into senior roles. Normalising women in leadership will reprogram or rewire our brains far more effectively than unconscious bias training. I advocate explicit gender targets with accountability. We know from the research that women suffer a bias handicap when it comes to achieving leadership positions and that if we look downwards in our organisations, we will likely find competent women who, in a non-gendered world, should have been promoted on the basis of their achievements or who have been overlooked for development. Mandated targets force organisations to look past their biases to identify those women to give them same development and promotion opportunities that have been offered to their male counterparts. It is not only fair to those particular women, but lifting those women up also helps to dismantle pervasive and entrenched gender stereotypes and creates role models for other women, which helps to stem the gender confidence gap.
ON A MORE PERSONAL LEVEL, HOW CAN WE OUTSMART OUR BRAINS AND BEAT OUR UNCONSCIOUS BIAS AND BIAS WE NOTICE IN OTHERS?
Over recent months, I’ve experienced an increase in demand from corporate clients on unconscious bias training, particularly from MNCs operating in the region. In response to that demand, I have developed a structured approach to mitigating bias that draws from proven social psychological techniques for managing bias—SPACE (Slow Down, Perspective Taking, Ask Yourself?, Cultural Intelligence, and Exemplars and Expand). Cultural inclusion is an element of diversity and inclusion work that has often not been addressed in programs originating out of North America but is critical in Asia, and increasingly critical in all markets.
If I were to pick two of the SPACE techniques for individuals new to bias mitigation to begin to work on it would be to (i) slow down and (ii) ask yourself? Slowing down is critical. To manage bias, individuals must create space to override their automatic reflexes with mindful responses. ‘Ask yourself?’ is about challenging your assumptions—consciously seeking out and make room for facts and searching for contrary evidence and information that might offer a more appropriate explanation.
When you notice bias in others, the appropriate way to deal with it is to respectfully challenge through engaging in supportive, non-accusatory dialogue and questioning to uncover hidden assumptions. Questions like “Can you give me an example?”, “What do you mean by that?”, “How does that affect job performance?” Jumping on people in an accusatory manner can trigger denial and defensiveness and can manifest as anger towards the target of bias. Making people aware of their biases needs to be handled delicately.