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We are all sexist: how unconscious bias drives inequality

A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating theatre, the surgeon pulled away and said: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son…” How can this be..? Figured it our yet..? This story, called the surgeons dilemma, shines a light on our unconscious bias of women in the workplace. The surgeon in this story is of course the boy’s mother.

In it’s simplest form, unconscious bias is an automatic judgement triggered in our brain, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. These biases can be based on gender, age, skin colour, nationality, beliefs, educational background and many other factors. However, for this blog we’re going to focus on the fact that we are all sexist (and yes, that does include you and me…)

It may not be nice to hear (it definitely isn’t nice to write) but research has shown us that we all stereotype both men and women from a very young age – we all have unconscious bias. For example, when schoolchildren as young as five were asked to draw firefighters, surgeons and pilots, only 5 of the 66 drawn were of women.

This learnt behaviour then justifies itself in our brain – as this fascinating study shows…

Researchers created two resumes for the role of police chief. One focused more on educational credentials (‘book smart’) whilst the other focused on experience (‘street smart’). In a number of experiments, participants were then asked which they would hire to see if gender would change the outcome, highlighting the presence of any unconscious bias.

Experiment No.1

Both resumes are anonymous and therefore gender-less. The result: hire the book smart candidate – a theme we’ll interestingly see throughout this research.

Experiment No.2

This time the book smart candidate is male, whilst the street smart applicant is female. The result: hire the male book smart candidate; no surprises there.

Experiment No.3

The book smart candidate is now female and the street smart, male. This time the result was still to hire the male candidate. When the participants were quizzed as to why, they justified there response by saying that street smart credentials were much more important to them (despite the research telling us otherwise).

Experiment No.4

For this they did something slightly different. Prior to seeing the resumes, the researchers asked the participants which credentials were most important to them; being book smart was the clear winner. The result: this time gender did not have an impact on the participants choices. They backed the book smart candidate, whichever gender they used. Scarily, these results aren’t just happening in the lab…

The percentage of UK based senior roles held by women is just 19% whilst 41% of UK business’ have no women in senior management at all. If we look to the worlds biggest companies for inspiration, we’ll find that just 6.8% of the Fortune 500 are led by women. It’s clear from these stats (and many others) that women are not getting the opportunities they should be, despite the a-list publicity of equal opportunity initiatives.

More needs to be done by all of us. Question is, what?

COMBATTING YOUR UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Question Your Inner Voice

Notice how you perceive others. We should never presume that these problems only occur because of everybody else. Instead, try challenging yourself to play devils advocate when you make a choice about another’s ability. What are you basing that judgement on? Do you know the facts? Did you make assumptions too quickly? The more we can recognise such judgements, the more likely we are to make biased free choices.

Just as importantly – have you ever considered what biases you hold against yourself? For example, do you often use minimising language or apologise when you needn’t? Do you ask for permission instead of being the first to lean in? These behaviours can often leave a perception in ours (and others) minds that we are not ready or even worthy of that promotion or important project. Try setting yourself small daily challenges that’ll help others perceive you in a strong and confident light.

And finally on this point: do your prep work. Recognise what you want to see in yourself and others BEFORE the important event, meeting or conversation. Like the police chief study – we can help ourselves by priming our brains to look out for the right things.

Change Your Language

A female friend of mine went to hire a car with her boyfriend. The male seller said to the boyfriend, “You’re not gonna let the female drive are you?!” with a cheeky grin riddled across his face. Such throwaway comments are called Micro-Aggressions: everyday exchanges that demean a group or individual without meaning to cause offence. The problem is, when we say such statements (and we can all be held accountable to such moments), we further ingrain stereotypes into our culture and unconscious way of thinking. The salesman would never call himself ‘sexist’ and yet here he is, adding wood to the fire. The more we can evaluate our own (and others) language choices, the more active we can be in using inclusive language that matches our moral judgements.

Turn Data Into Action

Without data we have no starting place or finishing line to aim for. How else can we know the gender split of each business, of who gets the promotions or management roles, of any wage discretions there may be or specialisms less equal than they should be (the tech industry being particularly male dominant for example). The more detailed and localised your data can be, the more you can help yourself (and your business) drive real change.

Then it’s about doing something.

  • Should you evaluate your hiring process? Are you asking for details that may not be required? Are you clear enough on what you are specifically looking for before you get the resumes in?
  • Should you evaluate your approach to appraisals? Are you relying too much on personal opinion rather than achievement or talent?
  • Should you consider your messaging & culture? Is your environment and mission clear of misogamist undertones? It can often be the subtle messaging that leaders send out that can make a dramatic difference.
  • Do you have an easy (and perhaps anonymous) way of calling out bias when it happens? Or is this behaviour often swept under the carpet?

Every business & every person can do more to help the current in-balance.

Question is, what are you going to do?

Unconscious Bias

If you’re interested in taking your Unconscious Bias learning further you can now purchase our Culture, Diversity and Ethics eLearning bundle. Develop fair, inclusive, & ethical ways of working. As we live and work in an ever more connected world it is important to be mindful of cross cultural communication and the implications of diversity in the workplace. This bundle will give you a greater understanding of people’s differences and help you to foster a fair and inclusive mind-set.

 

 

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