Workplace and Board Diversity: Unconscious bias

Heather Price, CEO of Australian diversity consulting firm Symmetra, says there’s been a huge shift in the rules of business and the rules of expectation are changing with leaders recognising that diversity is productive.

Heather was a recent guest speaker at an Auckland breakfast seminar jointly hosted by the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust and the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.  “Women are becoming the engine room of the economy”.  She says women are starting to outnumber men in the workforce and more women than men are graduating from the tertiary sector.  Hence Heather questions why we are not seeing a corresponding rise of women in senior positions in New Zealand.

Since the Australian Stock exchange made it compulsory for companies to list the number of women on boards, or explain why there are no women on their boards the number of women in these roles has risen, from 8.5 percent to more than 12 over the last two years.  Heather says more than half of Australia’s large companies now have a diversity policy and strategy right across their talent pipe line.  She adds that it’s essential these policies report on more than gender – it needs to include age, ethnicity, religion and so on.  “But is it enough?  Is compulsory reporting enough?  Leading organisations globally have been questioning why their diversity policies haven’t really gained traction.

Heather explains the common perception is that we don’t have bias.  ‘But every single one of us has unconscious bias against something or someone.  And it’s not only men who are biased towards ethnic groups or baby boomers for example.  We pride ourselves on being rational and objective but some of it we are blind to.  Our brains are bombarded with stereotypes.”  Heather says unconscious bias is something we all internalise but these attitudes are activated without us being aware of it.  Our major challenge is unconscious bias that has gone underground.”

Recent research by Catalyst shows unconscious bias against women in the workplace places the female talent pipeline in peril.  It’s also apparent this is not confined to issues of gender but extends to ethnicity, race, religion, age, sexual orientation and other groups.

However it’s not all doom and gloom as the good news is that we can raise that bias to a conscious level.  When this happens attitudes and behaviours change to improve the quality of decision making processes; resulting in a far reaching impact on organisational performance.  But it’s no easy feat as a survey in Australian banks showed.  Heather says it showed that women are just as ambitious as their male peers, but it is deep seated managers’ attitudes about women looking after children and lack of ambition that results in more males getting promoted instead.  That Glass Ceiling mentality isn’t restricted to high achieving women – let’s take a look at ethnicities.

Heather says research was done with job applicants CVs.  If someone has a Chinese sounding name on their CV they need to send it to 68 percent more businesses than someone who has an Anglo-Saxon sounding name before getting an interview.

Some data from Catalyst on qt_women_on_boards

Further reading: high_potentials_in_the_pipeline_leaders_pay_it_forward


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