Articles // September 29,2022

An understanding of unconscious bias women face, and how to reduce it at workplace

By Meenakshi Girish , Editor - Kavitha Chandrasekhar

Greetings, dear reader. We may not know each other but the thoughts I am about to share are not unfamiliar to us all. This is Meenakshi Girish, a perky millennial who loves expressing her thoughts through well-thought-out words and watching Harry Potter at all other times.

Gender bias is something I have always heard about but never witnessed. Luckily, I had never been subjected to it and found it hard to determine when someone was being biased owing to gender. I was living in a bubble of ignorance and took things at their face value.

Until something happened that made me move away from the corporate world and turn into a full-time freelancer. I wanted to be my own boss and take charge of my own decisions without anyone controlling my time except me.

With all said, I used to work at an organization that specialized in digital marketing. Below is a conversation that occurred between of my female coworkers and our manager when she asked him for an appraisal:

Coworker (CW) – I noticed that my request for an appraisal has been rejected. Why is this so? This is unacceptable for me as I have worked extra hours in the past three months for the success of our new project.

MANAGER (M) – I am sorry but this month, we had to offer the appraisal to another (male) employee. It will be your turn next month.

CW – Why was he chosen over me? Remember he took a long leave this month for his honeymoon? He did not contribute much to the project and was absent for three weeks!

M – That is exactly why we favored him. He has a new family now and he must support them. He needs the extra cash to manage his expenses.

CW – But I have a family too. I need to support my husband and children too.

M – Then ask your husband to speak to his company. I am sure his manager will be willing to give him an appraisal. Yours is not rejected – it is merely kept on hold temporarily and you will receive it next month.

She did not receive it the next month as well owing to another man in our team getting engaged.

Expecting someone else to solve a problem and choosing to be a mere spectator is one of the reasons why the problem continues to persist. It is the fact that my coworker spent more time and effort on the project and yet our manager told her to ask her husband to get a raise.

This got me curious and made me dig deeper and I uncovered a lot more instances I was oblivious to. Bias is so common in the workplace to such an extent that it is normal.

Selection and recruitment

Women face an unconscious bias right from their recruitment. I noticed even job descriptions having gender-specific terms to deter women from signing up. Using words like confident, strong, outspoken, and decisive tend to sound gendered – they refer to the traits of men.

While these words attract male candidates, they make the job unfit for women. Even women recruiters tend to favor male candidates 30% of the time. It is also interesting to note that men apply to jobs even if they are around 60% qualified. Women apply only if they meet 100% of the requirements and qualifications.

If organizations wish to move past this, they need to make the role neutral for any gender – even the nonbinary ones. This is an unconscious move that is required by most workplaces, but it makes women reconsider applying to even jobs they are qualified to take.

Interview Questions

I remember when I answered my interview questions, I realized it was not a standardized set of questions. They seemed gender biased owing to how open-ended they were.

It does not help when recruiters expect women to display male leadership qualities while explaining their style of leadership. Dominate and be loud, or else the team will overlook you. This is what they are told, and these are the prerequisite qualities every leader must have to survive.

They are asked about family, and children, if they were expecting anytime soon, and how far they are willing to travel each day. This is a criterion as women cannot stay back late in the office as men do. They prefer to leave early and would appreciate company-sponsored vehicles over public transport.

To be honest, it is not right to discriminate against a candidate of their pregnancy and quality of work during their maternity. It is also wrong to enquire about their parental status or marital status. These details are asked unconsciously to portray the organization as a considerate one. But it comes off to judge women and how their standard of work could be.

Beauty bias and choice of clients allocated to the genders

I was amazed to see how unconsciously we have conditioned our minds to perceive advertisements. Here I would like to narrate a personal experience. I was part of a team that was managing a client who was a mobile reseller and had to run a campaign to get more people to buy their mobiles. My manager disapproved of the creative I made as it had just images of mobiles and technology.

When I asked what else is required, he said it needs a woman. People will not pay attention to such ads unless a woman is holding a mobile phone. Or a woman posing next to a refrigerator. The same goes for men – a TMT bar company would sell better if their ads had a muscular man holding the TMT bars.

He also told me that women are sent as sales reps for major meetings. This is because they have lower chances of getting rejected and they always make a sale. While these strategies are great, they add a lot of bias to women. It almost looks like the major talent they have is posing as eye candy for customers! Women are given feminine clients such as make-up brands, fashion, and clothing, sanitary products, etc. While this is also an unconscious bias, it seemed to be a way in which our brains are conditioned to accept it as it is.

How can these issues be combatted?

As a young professional, I perceived bias at a later stage. I entered the working world with my mind already conditioned in certain ways. I got out of it and became aware of my surroundings only when women around me pointed it out.

Going back to the first anecdote I mentioned, if I were the woman speaking to my manager and he told me such a reason, I would have accepted it. I would have empathized with my male counterpart and awaited the appraisal for the next month. But speaking to a woman made me realize that this is not fair.

By using her voice, she should have demanded a conference with the man in question. It is without a doubt that he needs the money but who deserves it more is not up to the office to determine. After an empathetic call with him, either the man would have agreed to the woman taking the raise or she would have conceded to him having it. But the difference is that in this case, the woman gets a say in not getting an appraisal.

The first way to combat the unconscious bias is for women to become allies. We know what it feels like and how stigmatized the workplace is. We also know how most of these biases are unintentional – men just need to be told what is going on in their minds as they do not often realize it. It is good to welcome women to roles of leadership and allow them to use their voice in whatever way they choose to.

Welcoming technology to combat biases

One good way to eliminate recruitment and hiring biases is to bring in technology and artificial intelligence. It will save employers time as they need not go through the interview entries, and it will make sessions more objective.

Use recruitment tools that use automation to make decisions. The software would not even know if the applicant were male or female. It simply checks the responses objectively and the criteria for screening will be based purely on merit. Common disadvantages for women will be eliminated and organizations can have a workforce built on talent.

Employee engagement activities

Another good way is to make your employees empathetic. Take surveys and make the replies anonymous. Ask your employees to engage with each other and encourage them to submit unfiltered responses. Understand the male-female ratio in your team and set questions that won’t reveal their genders.

This will give you the scope to understand how your employees feel being at the workplace and if there are any instances of harassment you should be aware of. Since the survey is anonymous, women will feel more comfortable sharing stories without worrying about retaliation.

Summing up

As someone who joined a corporate office, I was taken aback by the unconscious bias I found around me. I had lived in my little bubble thinking such situations did not exist until I witnessed bias.

We must be aware that companies have something called a glass ceiling. Everyone witnesses what is happening inside. But it has become so natural and common to experience bias and none taking an initiative to stop it.

Hence, the only way to combat the unconscious bias is for those who are conscious to raise their voice. And to know how you can do so irrespective of your gender and set the change in motion.

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In my career leading and building high-performing teams, I enjoy inspiring & coaching employees to unlock their potential for maximum performance. The team's success is my deepest delight. Global Coaching Lab provides the platform to put this into practice every day and fulfill my passion of making others great.




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