Unconscious gender bias in the workplace: what it is, what it does and what to do about it

The events of 2020 have sparked a much greater awareness of conscious and unconscious bias in society. But what impact does it have within the workplace, and what can be done about it? Selina Millstam, Vice President & Head of Global Talent Management, lays out the steps organizations can take to tackle this continuing challenge.

Unconscious gender bias in the workplace

Vice President and Head of Global Head of Talent Management

Vice President and Head of Global Head of Talent Management

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Many of us have a heightened sensitivity to social justice these days. The global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ferocious election battle underway in the United States has sparked greater awareness about our biases and more significant polarization.  As many of you may well have done,  I’ve been reading, and listening to podcasts, in an effort to push my own thinking about how I can make positive change.

As a woman and the mother of a daughter, I‘m passionate about achieving gender equality. As a leader, I see the opportunity (and perhaps the responsibility) to use my position of relative privilege to increase opportunities for others. Since joining the ICT industry almost a decade ago, I have focused considerable energy on increasing the representation of women in the workplace and on breaking down the barriers and biases that hinder their success.

Of course, lots of great progress has already been made. Most companies, like Ericsson, are now actively recruiting female leaders, and we are proud to have reached 32 percent female representation in our Executive leader population. But looking at the broader data trends, it is shameful that less than 5 percent of CEOs in the US and Europe are women, according to a study by Heidrick & Struggles,  and that women continue to be paid less than men for doing the same work. Elsewhere, the highest proportion of women CEOs are in Norway (16 percent) and the lowest is in China (1 percent).

It is unacceptable to imagine my daughter, Matilda, entering the workforce in the next decade to face some of the same barriers our mothers’ did 50 years ago. So we still have some real work to do.

Before we can begin that work, we need to take the time to understand what is contributing to a lack of gender representation in our workforce. The answer is complicated, of course, and the reasons are vast, (for a nice summary of the three types of barriers that women face to career progression, check out this report by Shape Talent).

There are some legitimate constraints in the talent market, which mean that as an employer, we probably couldn’t fill 50 percent of our positions with women tomorrow, even if we wanted to. But there are evidence-based actions we can take now to increase our representation of women, and to ensure that once we hire them, they’re given the same opportunities to progress as men. This is what I’d like to dig into and inquire more about for this blog post.

A conversation about diversity and inclusion

A conversation about diversity and inclusion

Hear from Selina Millstam, Head of Global Talent Management at Ericsson, about what corporations can do to fight discrimination in the workplace.

Listen to the podcast

 

Let’s talk about bias

By now, most people are familiar with the concept of bias. Bias is a systemic prejudice for, or against something or someone, based on things like stereotypes. Biases can adversely impact our judgment, causing us to make non-fact-based decisions in favor of one person or group to the detriment of others.

People can have biases that are either conscious, meaning that they are aware of their own prejudices, or unconscious, meaning that they are not aware of them. There are endless types of biases, for example, gender, race, age, and ability. We all learn and absorb them from our environments starting at an early age, depending on the context in which we were raised. Just think about your own upbringing and life experiences, and how they have influenced how you look at the world.

While conscious bias or discrimination is generally regarded as a bad thing and is often even illegal, it can often be easy to recognize and to address. Unconscious bias, on the other hand, is more pernicious, for many reasons.

First, because it is, by definition, unconscious, the individual with the unconscious bias – and remember, this is all of us - is largely unaware of it. Therefore, removing or reducing that bias is very difficult to do.

For example, while I may be committed to increasing the representation of women on my leadership team, when I’m interviewing candidates with virtually identical resumes, I may be more likely to choose the man over the woman because, for example, he was more confident and better able to articulate his past accomplishments. Of course, I don’t attribute that to his gender, I attribute it to the need of the team to have a strong and confident communicator. But when this happens over the course of dozens of interviews, we can start to see the patterns of gender bias.  And to continue my example, because I am unaware that bias is affecting my decision-making, I am left frustrated that I still can’t find more women to join my team. (For those interested in understanding more about their own unconscious biases, I highly recommend taking the free, confidential, Harvard University-developed Implicit Association Test.)

Second, unconscious biases can be difficult to spot with an untrained eye. They are often cloaked in things like ‘culture fit’ or ‘experience’ or ‘low-risk’. Because of this, data analysis is often required to identify where these biases are at play. Back to my example above, few people that knew me, or witnessed my interview process, would assert that my decision was biased. Therefore, my behavior would likely go unchecked.

Lastly, and where I’m going to spend the rest of this blog exploring, unconscious biases can become codified into the daily fabric of our organizations. They can be built, systemically – and inadvertently - into recruitment processes, performance management systems, and leadership development programs.

Unconscious bias talks

Unconscious bias can often be disguised as ‘culture fit’ or a ‘low-risk’ hire. Source: Unsplash

 

To give you a few concrete examples of what I’m talking about, studies have repeatedly shown that the traits most commonly associated with successful leaders are those that align with stereotypically male behaviors.* So if our performance or succession management processes are built on identifying these traits, we are unlikely to promote women.

In recruitment, the oft-relied on 'fit’-based decisions result in the selection of candidates who are similar in irrelevant ways to the hiring manager, and the rejection of those with personal characteristics that are unfamiliar. This means that we tend to hire people whom we like. And typically, who are like us.  And when most hiring managers are men, that results in fewer women being selected.

According to Lazlo Bock, former CPO of Google, “Too many people see hiring as an instinct art form, honed by years of their own experience: when asked, three-fourths of people involved in the interview process at elite law, banking, and consulting firms admitted to making hiring decisions based on their gut.”

When these biases are systematically (albeit unintentionally) embedded into our processes, they weaken talent management efforts and deal a fatal blow to diversity, equity and inclusion aspirations. Therefore, de-biasing people process helps to improve organizational decision-making, resulting in better business outcomes and increased workplace equality. A real win-win. 

“Gender equality is a moral and a business imperative. But unconscious bias holds us back, and de-biasing people’s minds has proven to be difficult and expensive. Diversity training programs have had limited success, and individual effort alone often invites backlash. Behavioral design offers a new solution. By de-biasing organizations instead of individuals, we can make smart changes that have big impacts.”

Iris Bohnet, Harvard University

Unconscious bias are largely unaware

Remember: those with unconscious bias are largely unaware of it. Source: Unsplash

 

So how can we de-bias our processes?

The good news is that there is ample research that we can draw on to guide us on this journey. And the even better news is that Ericsson has begun this work already.

 As an avid consumer of behavioral science research, I will do my best to summarize what I’ve learned below. This also happens to outline the approach that we’re taking at Ericsson to increase our own gender representation over the next five years. All the sources I’ve drawn on will be listed below, for those who are interested in learning more.

Three key actions you can take to remove biases from your organizational processes are as follows:

  1. Identify which processes may be prone to bias by using data and analytics
    The numbers will almost always tell a story if you look hard enough. For example, do you have disproportionate attrition among women at certain levels in your organization? If so, this is the first clue that you should investigate what’s happening. How about recruitment? Are you disproportionately losing women in the resume screen phase, or between the first and second interview phase? If so, spend some time digging around to learn more. Is there a difference in the average performance ratings of men and women, or differences in renumeration? These are just a few of the questions that we should be asking, and then using the data to help identify potential barriers or biases.
  1. Formalize and standardize your processes
    The goal here is to remove as much subjectivity and emotion as possible from people processes. All interviews should be structured, meaning that the same questions are asked of all candidates, with no time allocated for small talk. Assign a numerical rating to each response using pre-determined, standardized criteria. This allows you to fairly compare candidates. The same principles apply to performance management. Clearly define the threshold for each of the performance ratings and reinforce consistent application through manager training and oversight. And so on and so forth with all of your processes…
  2. Require fact-based decision-making and transparency, with the expectation that all decisions need to be explained.
    This last one might be the most difficult because in many organizations this may require a big culture change, especially in hierarchical companies. A very effective way to remove subjectivity and bias is to require that all people decisions – whether it’s hiring, promotions or performance management – be justified with evidence and explained to others. Aids such as checklists can inject transparency into a process, i.e., helping others to understand how decisions were made, and also remind the manager of the evidence required to justify a decision. For example, task-based assessments are an effective way of assessing someone’s capability and can serve as evidence that they are ready for promotion. A personal endorsement, on the other hand should not qualify as evidence.

These three principles, according to the evidence, while not comprehensive, will help you make substantial progress in leveling the playing field within your organization. And this is what we’ve committed to doing at Ericsson, with the guidance of trained behavioral scientists to help us in the early days of this journey.

What I find most exciting about this approach is that it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s also the right thing to do for the business. When you remove bias from your decision-making, you make better decisions. When you assess candidates on their ability to perform the job, rather than on how much you like having a coffee with them, you hire better quality candidates. When you consider 100 percent of the talent pool when looking for your future leaders, you end up with better talent. And as it happens, you also end up with more women.

“We’ve been trying to tackle the world’s hardest problems with only 50 percent of our collective brainpower. It’s time for that to change. By bringing more women into positions of power and influence, we can finally use the full measure of humanity’s talents and ambitions. We need all the best ideas, and the most courageous leaders, to conquer the challenges ahead.”

Melinda Gates Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Want to learn more?

Read Dan Kerber’s blog post about how to foster a better speak up environment.

Read our blog post about women in business: what we can learn from Hilda Ericsson.  

Discover what happens to girls when they take the lead in public space design.

Learn more about Ericsson and gender equality.

Follow Selina on LinkedIn.

References

* Gary N. Powell, Women and Men in Management, Sage Publications (2018).

Iris Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Harvard University Press (2016).

UK Government Equalities Office (2017). Evidence-Based Actions for Employers. 

UK Government Equalities Office (2019). Women’s progression in the workplace. For more information.

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