To Fight Unconscious Bias, We’ve Got To Recognize It

In our slow-but-steady march to the board rooms, corner offices and C-suites of companies both large and not-so-large, we’ve definitely come a long way.

But currently, women’s achievements in advancement may be holding too steady. The number of women in senior leadership and executive levels has been stuck at approximately 15% for the past 10 years, notes Jeffery Tobias Halter, president of YWomen, a consultant firm that helps organizations create more leadership opportunities for women.

The biggest hurdle is one that, ironically, we’ve been fighting against for decades: unconscious or inherent bias when it comes to getting ahead in our workplaces.

“Despite decades of women flooding into middle management, only one out of five are senior leaders today and less than one out of 10 CEOs are women,” says Halter, the author of WHY WOMEN: The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men. “So men see a lot of women in the workplace and think the [equality] problem is solved.”

The root of the problem, though, might be surprising.

What’s The Underlying Problem?

Part of unconscious bias, Halter suggests, relates to the perceptions of business leaders versus the realities of women in the workforce. Men in high positions might consistently see more women hired—so they assume their companies are consistent in promoting and advancing women as well.

The reality? Most women tend to remain stuck in staff, middle management and administrative level purgatory. Thus, we’re still not at many of the tables where decisions are made on high-priority initiatives.

Halter cites 2012 research that shows what feeds this cycle. Sampling about 3,000 U.S. business leaders, the research showed that:

  • While 56% of men think women have made considerable progress over the past 10 years, only 39% of women think we’ve made considerable progress over the past decade.
  • While 49% of women believe gender bias is pervasive, only 28% of men believe gender bias is pervasive.

Alison Maitland, co-author of Why Women Mean Business, says this bias is “unconscious” mainly because it’s an outdated outlook that no one has scrutinized enough to change. “It’s rooted in the expectations and ways of organizations that were designed and built by and for men in another era,” said Maitland.

In other words, it’s been “the way things are done” for so many decades that we don’t even think about why.

How We Can Solve It

Unconscious workplace bias was a popular topic at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. A panel of women leaders in various fields discussed how and why such bias occurs, and offered suggestions on what women can do to curb it in their current workplaces.

  1. Recognize that bias is inherent. “Humans naturally have bias because it’s instinctive,” says Robin Hauser Reynolds, a filmmaker who produced the documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. “Biases are really ‘shortcuts’ we use from past experiences to categorize people, and automatically assign traits to them. We then use these stereotypes—even those we might not agree with—to influence our decisions, such as hiring people who seem most like us.”
  1. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge it. This isn’t about shouting “bias” at every seeming injustice. It’s that many of us just don’t want to be flag-bearers for change. We want to be recognized as deserving of recognition or a promotion in our own right, but we need to remember that if the deck is already stacked against us, it won’t matter how good we are.

“Articulate what you want,” says panelist Elena Richards, talent manager and minorities initiatives leader for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “There may still be a bias, but at least those you work with will know where you’re coming from.”

  1. Forge alliances. We all share our workplaces with men, so we’re not going to get far eliminating bias if we don’t enlist their help, says panelist Rachel Jacobs, senior VP for Wirehouse Channel, Delaware Investments. Seek out male mentors if possible, or encourage men to work with you or others who have new ideas on getting more women ahead in your department or company. “The majority of men really are on our side,” Jacobs says.
  1. Be a change agent when you can. It’s great if your company puts efforts behind recruiting and hiring women in a variety of fields. But if you see it’s not following that up with an equal effort in retaining and advancing women, ask why. Does your company put efforts into sending women to continuing education or leadership training seminars? Does it have an active women’s leadership group? Are leadership opportunities offered equally to both women and men where possible?
  1. Be your own voice. Confidence is the greatest factor that determines our survival over inherent bias, noted Reynolds. No one is going to give you an edge unless you speak up for it. “Acknowledge what you bring to the room,” says PWC’s Richards.

“If you speak up when you see bias, and show your real worth, things will change,” says Jacobs. “At the end of the day, you’re really your own best advocate.”