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Leadership at All Levels

Unconscious Bias Can Sabotage Diversity Initiatives

Tricia Kagerer | November 22, 2019

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Boss woman in construction hat

The construction and insurance industries have something in common. Both industries are experiencing an absence of workers at all levels in their organizations. The war on talent and the ability to attract and retain employees will continue to have a negative impact on both industries, driving up costs for services and production.

As the baby boomers and the construction maestros retire, both construction and insurance industries must identify what is stagnating their ability to ultimately retain and promote top talent.

In today's world, talent diversity and leadership initiatives must be front and center of every executive's mind. Human Resources (HR) departments are tasked to champion critical initiatives to attract and ultimately promote a diverse talent pool, but the profile at the C-suite for construction and insurance remains unchanged. Only 7.5 percent of construction organizations have women in construction management roles, and only 3 construction organizations have a female CEO.1 Similarly, a Mckinsey study found that, while women outnumber men at entry-level positions in the insurance industry, their representation of the workforce is significantly smaller near the top of the organizational chart. Women represent 56 percent of entry-level positions but only 30 percent of the vice presidents and 18 percent of the C-suite.2

The big question is, what is holding women back? Is it the notion of scarcity—the zero-sum game that if a woman takes a seat at the table, it is one less seat for a man? Or is it something below the surface like unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is defined as discrimination and incorrect judgments that occur due to stereotyping. These can occur automatically and without the person being aware of it. These types of biases are often so ingrained in culture and society that they often go unnoticed by many people.

A Harvard Business study3 set out to reveal how different words used in performance reviews impact decisions in the workplace. The researchers focused on the military—the most traditional, longstanding, male-dominated work environments. Over the last several decades, the military has also worked diligently to eliminate formal gender segregation and discrimination. The military's performance evaluation tools are predicated on meritocratic ideals of fairness and justice, intentionally designed to provide equal opportunity regardless of a person's demographics. The analysis spanned over 4,000 participants and 81,000 evaluations that included a list of 89 positive and negative leadership attributes used to assess leader performance in a military setting.

The results showed no gender difference in objective measures such as grades, fitness scores, or class standing. There was also no difference in the number of positive attributes assigned. However, the positive words used to describe men and women were very different. Positive words to describe men included analytical, competent, athletic, and dependable. Positive words for women included compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic, and organized.

Women were assigned significantly more negative attributes. The most commonly used negative attribute to describe men was arrogant, followed by irresponsible. Women were described as inept, frivolous, gossip, excitable, scattered, temperamental, panicky, and indecisive. The research showed that the attributes we use to describe male and female leaders are more than just words, and they can have real-life implications.

So, what is the big deal about the difference in word choice? If two equal candidates were being evaluated for a leadership role—one is described as compassionate, while the other is described as analytical, who will get the promotion? Unless the field is nursing or education, the analytical person wins hands down. Conversely, consider a manager determining dismissal of two equal candidates. One is described as arrogant, while the other is called inept. The perceived "inept candidate," the female, may become the first one to be let go.

Subtle Bias versus Blatant Bias

Social science data shows that people are much more likely to encounter subtle forms of bias than overt ones. Today, HR professionals may hear fewer complaints of blatant overtures such as catcalls from female subordinates. Instead, managers may choose to subtly ignore a woman's input. These behaviors may be unintentional and can reflect unconscious beliefs about the characteristics of women. Some might argue that the general evolution of discrimination from obvious to subtle may be evidence of social progress. Unfortunately, research shows that the new kind of bias can be even worse than the older kind.

The Challenge of Obscurity and Bias

The challenge with bias is that, according to scientific study, by definition it happens automatically, is outside of control, and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. Proponents of training to fix this problem may be missing the mark; some experts argue that training people to understand their own biases is a waste of time.

Training assumes that once someone is aware of their own bias, that awareness will help a person correct their thinking, and they will change behavior and censor their own thoughts. This assumes that by merely exposing a bias, it will ultimately and magically evaporate. Furthermore, it wrongly assumes that when someone is aware of bias, they will actually want to change it. Exposure may help a person gain insight, but insight does not mean someone wants to change their behavior. Unfortunately, people may choose to hover under the umbrella of unconscious bias as a way of legitimizing their prejudices.

Research has also provided evidence that, in some cases, unconscious bias training has increased defensiveness, reinforced stereotypes, and contributed to stonewalling, which ultimately are all expressed through anger, frustration, and resentment. Underlying these emotions is fear. Fear of losing power, losing status, losing rewards, undermining credibility, our own ignorance, and how people with different opinions will change the ways things are done in the workplace.

Further, research shows that dominant groups in an organization in relation to gender, race, and nationality, as well as dominant ways of working, are all motivated to maintain the status quo. Dominance amounts to power. Why would you want to give your power away or even share some of it?

Fear and power are at the heart of keeping things the same. To address fear and power, we need to plow into the root of emotions. Once we know where the emotions stem from, then we can begin to plant the seeds for new behaviors. Other organizational concepts such as "fit" and "values" (also corresponding to "we like people who are like us") are equally contentious and make up a part of the equation that is organizational culture.

Intervention Strategies

According to the University of California, San Francisco Office of Diversity and Outreach, to identify and ultimately change unconscious bias, it must be addressed personally by individuals and professionally by the leaders of organizations.4 Personally, unconscious bias can hold you back from becoming your authentic self by stifling growth and hanging on to falsehoods and limiting beliefs.

Professionally, unconscious bias stifles creativity, creating an echo chamber in organizations where change will never occur. The reality is that the world is changing, and dynamic businesses must embrace the change to be successful for the long-term years to come.

Personal Strategies

Unconscious biases are difficult to change—but not impossible. Research suggests that there are actions we can take and techniques we can utilize to minimize the impact of unconscious bias on our thoughts and behaviors. Some examples of strategies one can use to address unconscious bias at the individual level include the following.

Education. By reading this article and learning about unconscious bias, you have taken the first step to address some of your biases. Consider taking the next step and participating in an unconscious bias training program to learn more about the origins and consequences of biases and strategies to address bias.

Self-Awareness. In addition to education, enhanced self-awareness is a powerful tool to address unconscious bias. Recognizing biases toward a particular group is yet another step you can take to minimize the impact of bias on your actions and behaviors.

Project Implicit is a nonprofit organization and international collaboration among researchers interested in implicit social cognition—thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases. The online Implicit Association Test is a valuable tool that individuals can use to learn more about one's biases.

Explore and engage. Intentionally seek out and engage in discussions with colleagues from diverse groups or volunteer in a community that's socially dissimilar to your own. This can lead to a greater appreciation and perhaps minimize the impact of unconscious bias on others.

Organizations must also commit to taking steps to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias.

Hiring and promotion practices. Develop ground rules to ensure equity in the hiring and promotion process. For example, search committees should develop and utilize concrete objective indicators and outcomes to reduce standard stereotypes. This includes structured interviews and objective evaluation criteria.

Search committees should allocate sufficient time to review and discuss candidates in a structured manner as unconscious bias may be more pervasive when under time pressure and making quick decisions.

Awareness. Organizations should open the conversation of unconscious bias to create awareness and strive to identify issues that permeate their industry.

Leadership. Organizations should provide leaders with support and guidance to address unconscious bias but also require that efforts and outcomes be documented through an annual summary. Organizational leaders must ask themselves two powerful yet simple questions.

  • If my executive team looks, thinks, and acts just like me, why do I need them at this table?
  • Does the executive team think, act, and represent the mindset of the majority of our employees and customers?

The answer to these questions may be the catalyst to sow the seeds of future change.

  1. Lior Zitzman, "Women in Construction: The State of the Industry in 2019," BigRentz, February 14, 2019.
  2. Craig Guillot, "New Study Shows Just How Significantly Underrepresented Women Are in Insurance Leadership Roles," Risk and Insurance, September 28, 2018.
  3. Margaret C. Nikolov, Judith E. Rosenstein, and David G. Smith, "The Different Words We Use To Describe Male and Female Leaders," Harvard Business Review, May 25, 2018.
  4. "Strategies To Address Unconscious Bias," University of California, San Francisco Office of Diversity and Outreach, website accessed on November 19, 2019.

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