How Unconscious Bias Effects Business Women

It appears that in Australia, whether we are talking about Executives or Board Directors, “like hires like”. I believe there is an unconscious bias towards senior managers, executives and Directors of a certain age, gender and race.

Its important that we recognise this bias and realise that leaders are very diverse. It’s their capability, competencies and skills that really matter.

Unconscious bias, whether it concerns gender, ethnicity or age, is hard to measure but it is very evident in business and politics. Many organisations and the Australian Human Rights Commission have been trying to address unconscious bias for the last decade.

In April 2010, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick was instrumental in bringing together some of Australia’s most influential and diverse male CEOs and Chairpersons to form the Male Champions of Change group.

I believe the only way to tackle the unconscious bias issue is through direct conversations with individual leaders and their teams about their attitudes and values around diversity. Unconscious bias needs to be part of the broader diversity language in all organisations.

Organisations need to take a very broad diversity approach. It begins with open and honest conversations between males and females, in a confidential and trusting environment. It is imperative to have willing participants and include “change agents/influencers of change” and “champions” who will continue to drive the agenda. It is important to challenge beliefs in a constructive manner and imperative to engage peers and communicate messages positively.

The first step is to engage in the idea and the language of unconscious bias. Understanding how unconscious bias works is key to the success of any program. The discussions that take place on unconscious bias need to be constructive and that can only happen when the women have, or develop the confidence and capability for open and honest dialogue. It is important to build women’s capabilities to be much more self-aware and resilient in a range of leadership techniques.

There are many reasons why women do not get invited to join Executive teams or Boards. Generally, women who put in long hours, take on extra workloads and excel at what they do are less likely to get a seat at the senior executive table. Women tend to think if they work hard and achieve a great deal that someone is going to notice and promote them. In fact, often the opposite happens. They are not demonstrating an ability to network, position themselves and influence senior people which is really necessary to go to the next level of leadership.

Women resign from senior management either because the environment does not promote them or because they do not have a sense of entitlement. Women who transition back into the workforce after raising a family often feel disconnected. Disconnected from clients and customers or from new processes and technology that has been introduced during their career break.

Women are challenged to balance the role of leader, mother and often carer for elderly parents, rarely having time for themselves and their own interests.

Women across Australia at all levels in an organisation report to us that they lack confidence; in their abilities and in themselves and are less likely to ask for promotion or pay increases. “Research shows that women feel that they need to fit the role perfectly before applying, whereas men are willing to put their hand up for a role where they may not tick some or all of the boxes.

Programs need to include men and women at all levels of the organisation who are identified in the talent pipeline, not just senior levels.

Whether you are a male or female in the workforce, team member, manager or executive, I would like to hear your thoughts and experience in dealing with unconscious bias.

Donny Walford

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