Recently, McKinsey in its Women in the Workplace 2022 spoke about how women were leaving organisations in unprecedented numbers. The report noted, “It’s increasingly important to women leaders that they work for companies that prioritize flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). If companies don’t take action, they risk losing not only their current women leaders, but also the next generation of women leaders.” Microagressions, gender and other hidden unconscious bias have often contributed to women and other minority group individuals feeling unrecognised and unrewarded. Many companies pay attention and care about its employees to foster diversity, but most struggle because unconscious bias is often unintentional.
An organisation’s ability to combat unconscious biases could offer a competitive advantage for its business and act as a key driver of growth. This article highlights how you can have healthy conversations on the topic of bias in the workplace and maintain a competitive business. Let us observe the story of Pooja (source name changed on request).
Unconscious bias impedes growth
As a young and vibrant millennial, Pooja recently turned to freelance owing to the various biases she faced at her workplace. She realized that her voice was not heard as unconscious biases are deep-rooted and people often don’t even notice them excusing them as natural behaviours. In most cases, the biases thrown at her way were unintentional.
“It felt like people were judging me even before they stepped forward to say hello. They compartmentalized me into a box in their minds and everything I did adhered to their initial perception of me. When I entered the office, I was shy to even walk up to the water filter myself for a cup of water. In a week, the whole workspace had decided that I was unfit to lead projects and stay directly in touch with clients,” she said.
Conformity was the main bias Pooja faced. People had taken her behaviours and style of physical language to categorize her in a certain way. If this had been a positive bias, she could have used the halo effect to her advantage and played to her strengths. But in this case, it was a negative perception, and it hindered her ability to perform well.
Other cases Pooja observed
Pooja also narrated some more experiences faced by her peers. The HR department had different approaches to the same questions while interviewing various male and female candidates. Men were asked how many dependants they had at home. If the number was high, the man was given a high salary for his work so he could support his family.
If the woman had many dependants at home, she was normally not selected. This was due to the bias that she was the caregiver at home, and she wouldn’t be able to focus on her work. The HR team considered themselves highly empathetic for this bias and felt it was the best for the candidates as well.
“This bias stems from our childhood memories. We see our mothers working tirelessly in the kitchen all day while our fathers go out to work. When we grow up, irrespective of our gender, we assume every modern household is the same. We think women need to stay home and cook all day, leaving them no time for work or meetings,” said Pooja.
These biases extended from recruitment to promotion to even recognition for the work completed. There were several microaggressions at the workplace which affected how the employees treated each other. Men used to speak over women and interrupt them during meetings.
There were times when male employees repeated exactly what a female employee did, but it went unnoticed. A crucial point extended by a woman was often brushed under the rug. But when a man addressed the same issue, it was taken seriously. This was because most of the decision-makers in the company were men and the solutions had to be executed by them in the end.
Pooja’s potential solutions
Once Pooja left her business and started freelancing, she began to think better with a clear mind. In just two months, she got in touch with her previous manager and expressed her views on how to manage unconscious bias. He admitted them and began to implement them in his organization for future generations.
Some of the solutions she prescribed include:
Making people aware
Pooja herself admits that unconscious bias is majorly unintentional. Most of the time, the perpetrators don’t even know they are being offensive or derogatory. Making people aware is the first step to finding a solution. With a professional coach, businesses can make Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) a part of their agenda.
They can train their employees to avoid such biases and understand what their words are implying. For example, an employee used to say, “I am so proud of your work as a strong, black woman”. This might sound like a compliment, but the woman usually takes offense as the praise doesn’t focus on her success. It focuses on her achieving success despite being a woman and a black one at that. The context of the compliment changes and it sounds like the man is pitying her at some level.
Fostering healthy conversations
Employees must be offered the space to communicate their feelings to each other. Try not to preach too much and publicly point out their mistakes. This practice of blaming and shaming might make people defensive and even hurt them. It might push your employees to never voice their opinions due to a fear of sounding biased unintentionally.
Give people the space to confront each other respectfully. If a woman notices a subtle bias in what she’s being told, she can end the matter on the spot. It could be something as simple as approaching your peers and saying, “I didn’t like what you said the other day” or “Your comments made me feel poorly about myself because…”
People need to realize that in any situation, anybody can be a victim, and anyone can be a perpetrator. Two women may be harbouring biases against each other or even against a man. To break this bias, role-playing workshops can be held at frequent intervals.
Give two random employees, a scene they need to enact and notice their body language and choice of words. For example, a female employee notices a mistake in a monthly report submitted by her male counterpart. The man has just joined the company and is still in his training period.
How do both parties handle this situation? Does the woman choose to even confront the man or let it slide? If she does confront him, what tone and stance does she use and how is the feedback received? Pay attention to these subtle details as they make a world of difference in the end on how to manage unconscious bias.
Every department must get involved — even the organizers
A common mistake most companies make is excluding the organizers during such workshops. But as indicated in Pooja’s experience the HR team themselves had biases against the team. This makes it mandatory for every member of the business, including the manager to take part in the sessions.
The session must give them tangible steps to overcome their problems and bring a visible change in the company culture. All ideas need to be heard and automatic assumptions need to be questioned. Give special focus to employees that are facing unproductivity and exclusion.
Unlike Pooja’s manager, many leaders and organisations still have a long way to go where recognising unconscious bias is concerned. This is why we need more conversations around unconscious biases to help more women shatter glass ceilings and open up opportunities for individuals from diverse communities.
It is necessary to empower your team to handle various situations and filter their thoughts to understand how people will receive them. Involve all departments and teams while conducting workshops on hidden bias as you never know who will need the education.
At the end of the day, hidden bias plays a massive role in decision-making and daily human interactions. It will affect people’s perceptions of each other and themselves at one point. To manage our teams and employees better and make them more inclusive, we need to learn more about unconscious and social bias. Ensuring diversity can help organisations grow in unimaginable ways, exploring limitless possibilities. Awareness is often the first step to change.