Unconscious bias and its negative impact on women in the workplace

Imagine going to work everyday and finding that you are constantly prejudiced against because of who or what you are. This is what most of the population has to face in the workplace on a daily basis thanks to ‘unconscious bias’. Unconscious bias can be described as bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control, triggered by our brain making quick decisions.

My first realisation of the existence of bias was six years ago when I ran one of the modules for the Hyper Island Masters course in Manchester. As part of the module we asked all the students to interview for the position of MD for one of the two agencies we would form over the course of the module. After an intense day of 18 interviews, I had my shortlisted the three I was confident were the best people for the job. They were all men. Fortunately I had brought Tina Fiandaca, the People Director at my agency (and also now my wife) and she had a clear favourite who was not on my list — a woman called Lauren. After a second round of interviews, we appointed two MDs, one from my list and Lauren from Tina’s. Lauren turned out to be a natural leader and it was no surprise to me when her team won.

However, it was only until I started getting involved with Token Man I realised how prevalent and what a barrier it is to equality in the workplace. Unconscious bias comes in many different forms — the language used in job descriptions, to working practices (lack of flexible working), to pay reviews to promotions to recruitment. Harriet Minter, ex-editor of The Guardian’s ‘Women in Leadership’ says: “It can be as simple as a boss speaking to a junior member of the team because they both support the same football team, then pulling them in for an interesting job because they think he is a ‘good guy’. I experienced it in team meetings when I would arrive and discover all the decisions had been made in the pub the night before.”

Sadly, unconscious bias exists both in men and women and is totally embedded in our culture as seen from over one million Harvard Implicit Association Career-Gender Tests:

So, how is the industry doing in terms of recognising the impact of unconscious bias and changing it? I was surprised at how few of our Token Men, men who are doing some great work to support women in the workplace, had taken the test. One even asked me what ‘unconscious bias’ was. So we asked some of them to take the test alongside the women I have interviewed. The results highlight the issue. Tracy de Groose, CEO, Dentsu Aegis, summarises it well: “My mum worked longer than my dad. My husband and I also buck the trend; I am a female CEO and my husband has opted out of corporate life to look after our boys and support me. And I’ve spent years championing women. Yet I still have a slight automatic association for ‘male with career’ and ‘female with family’. I was gobsmacked at how deep it goes.”

Roxanne Hobbs, founder of the Hobbs Consultancy, comments: “Unconscious bias is really a side effect of the way our brain loves to categorise and to stereotype. As human beings, we are able to sift through vast quantities of data on a daily basis and our brain does that by categorising the data. It is not possible to be human and to completely avoid the use of categories and stereotypes. The pattern of these stereotypes is reflective of the wider world around us — how we’ve been brought up and the culture in which we currently live. If we were brought up in a family where the Mum stayed at home as the primary carer and the Dad went out to work to bring in the main income, and we continue to live in a society where those roles are predominantly played out in our culture, it is likely that our brains will become wired in that way and we will have an association between male and career, and, conversely, women and family”.

This is true of one former CEO who I spoke to and wished to remain anonymous. He said: “I have a strong association with male and career and women and family. This is painful for me, and a reflection of how I was brought up. My father was always at work, and my mother, despite graduating from Cambridge, gave up her job to look after us. This is what my wife did when we had our third child.”

Karen Blackett, Chairwoman at MediaCom UK, who has a slight unconscious bias towards female and career concurs “My results are based on my situation. My mum worked nights as a nurse at the weekends while my dad looked after us and I am single mum with a part time male nanny who helps me care for my 7 year old son. I am consequently raising a 7 year old feminist!”

As a result it is important not to judge people because of their bias. Tom Knox, outgoing IPA President, summed it up when he said: “Inevitably the result made me feel like I had “failed”, but I do think it’s important for men not to be defensive in the face of evidence of their bias. It has made me much more aware and determined to improve.”

Psychologist Dr Simon Moore, MD of innovationlab, adds: “From my experience, people do not judge you because of your bias. Rather, what I have seen, is that once biases are shared in a team, people are far more likely to help each other out in addressing them going forward.”

So once you know your bias, what do you do next to improve? Most of the Token Men who were interviewed, said that while they understood where the result may have come from, they were unclear of what to do next.

The good news is that you can change your bias. As Minter comments: “The brain is a muscle. You simply have to challenge it”. And I am certainly proof of that as when I tested myself for the first time a year ago, I came out with an association for ‘Female with Career’ and ‘Male with Family’ which I am sure wouldn’t have been the case when I was CEO at Profero. I hired in my own image and would most certainly have said as some point “but I am confident I have hired the right person for the job”. However my circumstances also probably make it easier for me to change. Throughout my life I have been surrounded with ambitious, successful women.

Moore agrees: “As human beings we are inherently lazy and resistant to change so while you can change your bias it takes time and may make it harder for people whose biases are more ingrained.”

So what can you do once you have taken the first step to be tested? According to Roxanne Hobbs, an unconscious bias trainer, there is a lot you can do once you understand your bias: “You need to start looking at when and how that might show up in your behaviour. For example, does it mean that you inadvertently expect some groups to ‘jump higher’ for that promotion or in that interview? While we all have bias, we do not all have to act from that place of bias. You might want to look at ways in which you can counter the impact of that bias — blind CVs, for example, slowing down your decision making or perhaps structured processes for promotion based on observable behaviours.”

The industry has clearly got a lot to do and until it starts investing in diversity and inclusion it is not going to change quickly. However we should not need to wait for agencies to open up budgets to affect change. If everyone who reads this takes the unconscious bias test (it takes 5 minutes to do), we will be taking a step forward. Then ask your colleagues to take it. And ask your CEO to take it. And once your biases become conscious, you are going to be in a far better position to tackle them and understand what needs to change to getting one step closer to a workplace that offers equal opportunities for everyone.

I am also confident that you will find yourself more fulfilled in your work as your own daily interactions will be far richer, and you will undoubtedly be better at what you do.

The results:

Daren Rubins, CEO PHD Media

A moderate association for ‘Male with Career’ and ‘Female with Family’

“I’m not surprised I have that moderate association because it’s the environment I grew up in. But given my championing of unbiased opportunities, it’s still disappointing that this is coming through as an apparent prejudice. My hope is that collectively we can better understand whether these associations play out as limitations for women because that isn’t our experience or reality at PHD.”

Howard Belk, Co-CEO and CCO at Siegel+Gale

A moderate association for ‘Male with Career’ and ‘Female with Family’

“Believe me I’m now on guard for it. I like the idea of blind cv’s. That’s a concrete step in a very important area that I can take to eliminate possible unconscious bias.”

Ije Nwokorie, CEO, Wolff Ollins

A slight association for ‘Male with Career’ and ‘Female with Family’
 “Any bias needs addressing, even if it’s less than the societal norm. For me that’s about continuing to challenge my own form of leadership by being open to the different types of people around me”.

Lindsey Clay, Chief Executive at Thinkbox

A slight association for ‘Male with Career’ and ‘Female with Family’

“I intend to get over the shock and re-double my efforts to make sure that women get the equality of opportunity that they deserve.”

Toby Southgate, Worldwide CEO at Brand Union

A slight association for ‘Male with Career’ and ‘Female with Family’

“I want to do better, and I’m kicking off two new initiatives with immediate effect. First a formal salary benchmarking across the agency. And second, we’ve committed to WPP’s Common Ground initiative in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #5 on Gender Equality.”

Tracy De Goose, UK CEO at Dentsu Aegis

A slight association for ‘Male with Career’ and ‘Female with Family’

“My mum worked longer than my dad. My husband and I also buck the trend; I am a female CEO and my husband has opted out of corporate life to look after our boys and support me. And I’ve spent years championing women. Yet I still have a slight automatic association for ‘male with career’ and ‘female with family’. I was gobsmacked at how deep it goes.”

Karen Blackett, Chairwoman, Mediacom UK

A slight association for ‘Female with Career’ and ‘Male with Family’

“My results are based on my situation. My mum worked nights as a nurse at the weekends while my dad looked after us and I am single mum with a part time male nanny who helps me care for my 7 year old son. I am consequently raising a 7 year old feminist!”

This article first appeared in the March issue of The Drum.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.