19 Feb 2018 18:13 IST

Getting unconscious biases out of the way

Pic credit: iStock/JJPan

Such biases rob organisations of talent and skill that they could gain from productive employees

Sometime this week, I will be hosting a webinar on ‘unconscious bias’ for all women leaders of a large global corporation. Unconscious bias is not a new subject. With increasing realisation that organisations’ success depends on managing talent effectively, this subject has led to a need for heightened awareness and action. Leaders everywhere need to pay attention to this, especially those that impact women employees.

Working women

In the past, conscious discrimination against working women was commonplace. Over the years, however, intentional discrimination has almost disappeared, thanks also to legal protection. However, unconscious biases have remained outside the reach of law and continue to exist.

Simply stated, these are our blind spots. An awareness training for all employees, and more importantly to women employees, can address this challenge. These are largely invisible, but their consequences are not.

Over the years, Harvard University has developed a test to measure unconscious biases. It is called ‘Implicit Association Test’ and is available here (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit). In an HBR article published in the December 2003 issue, Mahzarin R Banaji and two others wrote, “...even the most well-intentioned person unwittingly allows unconscious thoughts and feelings to influence apparently objective decisions.”

So what are these biases? Let’s take a look at some of them here:

Gender: In identifying candidates for management positions requiring relocation, hiring managers systematically exclude women because they assume that women are not interested in jobs that require them to move.

In her book, Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg talks about an experiment conducted by New York University and Columbia Business School. It found that when a man is successful, he is well liked, but when a woman does well, people like her less.

Weight: In another survey, it was established that about half of HR professionals are biased against overweight women.

Compensation: A study by MIT showed that women and minorities continued to receive less than men, in terms of compensation.

All unconscious biases, however, are not confined to gender alone. It can cut across many other dimensions. For example, we may unconsciously change our body language, tone or other subtle cues when interacting with co-workers or customers based on the biases we have.

Micro inequities

MIT professor Mary Rowe explains that unconscious biases are revealed through micro inequities; the small, seemingly insignificant behaviours that have a corrosive effect on workplace and professional relationships. Some examples of micro inequities include:

~ Being left off a list.

~ Not being introduced in a meeting, or receiving a perfunctory introduction.

~ Consistently being mistaken for someone else.

~ Avoiding eye contact.

~ Repeatedly misspelling or mispronouncing a name.

~ Using sarcasm.

How can this be overcome? Here are some simple suggestions that can help control unconscious biases:

~ Be aware of triggers in yourself and others.

~ Remember that you are likely to favour people who are like you.

~ Do not make assumptions about individuals.

~ Be aware of your body language as well as verbal language.

~ Base decisions on facts and information rather than ‘gut instinct’.

Unconscious biases rob organisations of talent and skill that they would otherwise gain from productive employees. Hence, it is imperative that we raise our awareness and ultimately, weed out the biases. If we notice our colleagues too exhibiting some of these behaviours, we should call them out and bring it to their attention.