Imagine the following scenario: You are in the locker room of a championship winning team. The coach is giving a tough half-time talk. In the tunnel, a TV presenter is holding back one of the players for a quick interview while staff rush around changing towels and refreshing water. The referee consults with officials.
Now, let me ask, how did you picture the scene? Was the coach a man and the staff bringing towels a woman? Was the referee a man? If your answers are yes, you have most likely just fallen for a typical unconscious bias.
I am a student of neuroscience and have interned at adidas in their HR Strategy, Diversity and Inclusion team. I am also a woman and, while living in Canada for most of my life, I was born in South Korea. My background makes me a natural spokesperson for this topic, and puts me in a position to help you understand why unconscious bias influences us and how to overcome it.
What is an unconscious bias?
As the name suggests, we don’t consciously intend to be biased.
Such characteristics might be their gender, skin color, height, weight, where they went to college, or their parents’ jobs. Think of any characteristics and there is most likely a bias around it. We label individuals and value them based on them belonging to certain groups such as ‘light-skinned’ or ‘female’.
The reason being is that when our brain collects information it assigns it to patterns. This helps us to quickly react to situations we are not familiar with. What is a true advantage on an evolutionary level can make us stumble on a day-to-day basis. By putting a potentially inadequate label on people, our behavior towards them becomes distorted and inappropriate.
How does unconscious bias affect business?
The example provided in the beginning makes it clear: falling for unconscious biases in a work surrounding is easy. This is fatal. Discrediting people just because they are a certain way is destructive for successful businesses. Let’s take gender biases as an example.
Gender biases are detrimental to women aiming at leadership positions. A woman that speaks up against a popular idea is more often than not regarded as being ’bossy’ or ’aggressive’. A man in the same situation would be praised as being ’charismatic’. Another fact: Fathers are generally considered more competent and have better promotion chances. Mothers, on the other hand, are perceived 10% less competent and 15% less dedicated.*
It’s easy to understand that such implicit attitudes towards women have tremendous consequences for their recruitment, compensation and promotion. This leads to a skewed gender ratio the higher you go up the corporate ladder.
General figures show that reducing bias at work increases productivity, strengthens the employer brand and leads to more creativity in problem-solving. We see mitigating unconscious bias as not only relevant at an individual level, but as benefiting the entire business.
So, what steps can we all take to eliminate unconscious bias?
Here are 4 easy steps:
- Raise awareness for unconscious biases.
- Establish criteria for hiring, compensation and promotion of employees to counter unconscious bias effects.
- Train leaders and employees to reflect on their implicit attitudes.
- Reward best practices of leaders who diminish unconscious biases and promote diversity.
Remember, we all fall for unconscious biases. Such bias defines our values which in return determine our behaviors. Our behaviors drive cultures. While we can talk about a tolerant work environment all day long, we must first identify and overcome our own unconscious biases.
*Is There a Motherhood Penalty? Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik, Cornell University, 2007.