Unconscious bias in the workplace – can it be tackled?

In an attempt to address gender stereotypes, Google recently proposed 13 new emojis depicting women having careers as engineers, scientists, construction workers and farmers among other things. Considering that, currently, the only emojis that depict females at work consist of a dancer and – though this is a bit of a stretch – a princess, you might think that, in 2016, it’s about time working women were more accurately represented on the emoji ‘scene’. But does it matter?

Diversity and inclusion is high on the agenda of many employers, and rightly so. Not only is there an undisputed moral argument for diversity, but there is also ample evidence proving that more diverse businesses are more successful and profitable. While the diversity argument applies equally to all minority groups, it is perhaps in the gender sphere that we have seen the most activity in recent years.

Bids to increase female representation on boards and efforts to close the gender pay gap through new reporting obligations, it is hoped, will help drive the cultural change. Cultural change that, despite equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation having been part of the legal landscape for decades, has not yet fully taken hold. This is demonstrated by the fact that there is still an overall gender pay gap of 19% (based on figures from the Office for National Statistics). A number of studies also indicate the disadvantage experienced by many women in the workplace: in a recent study commissioned by the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission 77 percent of mothers said they had suffered a negative and possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave or on return to work from maternity leave, including in relation to flexible working.

So why, despite many employers being committed to diversity and to tackling inequality, is there still such gender imparity in the workplace, particularly at senior level? Many believe it is down to unconscious bias. Also termed ‘implicit bias’, these biases are prejudices, albeit often subtle, that we all have but are unaware of. They reside in the deepest part of our minds (referred to as the unconscious by psychologists) and influence the decisions made by business leaders at all levels. Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews, affect recruitment and promotion and unwittingly undermine an organisation’s culture.

Scores of studies have shown this to be the case. For example, a Yale University study found that male and female scientists (trained to reject the subjective) were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency and pay them more than women, simply based on the typically male and female names on otherwise equivalent CVs. Unconscious bias may also explain why women struggle to climb the corporate ladder even where there is no overt discrimination – in another recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of respondents said there were double standards for women who wanted entry into the C-suite.

But if it is unconscious, can it be tackled? Clearly this would be a much tougher task than simply putting an equal opportunities policy in place, but fighting bias is necessary to create a work environment that fully supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people. Fortunately, there are ways to combat unconscious biases, by making the unconscious conscious. It is only by recognising the biases that exist, and accepting that we all have them, that steps, structures and processes can be put in place to minimise their impact on diversity. Many employers now offer awareness training as the first essential step to uncover unconscious bias, allowing employees to identify their own biases and those of the organisation as a whole. Other practical steps include creating structures around decision making activities such as CV screening, interviews, mentoring and promotions to allow for more deliberate action and avoid the risk of bias seeping in unnoticed.  It is also interesting to note that positive, stereotype-busting images and role models have been shown to be effective in shifting hidden biases. The new female emojis proposed by Google may, indeed, matter.