Why leaders have to address unconscious bias

Last spring, a British charity called Inspiring the Future commissioned a television ad in which some schoolchildren in Kent drew pictures of a firefighter, a surgeon and a fighter pilot. After the drawings were done, the teacher invited three real members of those professions in, for the children to meet.

All three of the classroom guests were women. Of the 66 pictures the children had drawn, 61 were of men. This ad holds the answer to why, despite the media attention, the campaigns and the programs, we yet have to see a significant narrowing of the gender gap in the workplace.

According to the World Economic Forum progress towards economic equality in 2016 has slowed globally. The global economic gender gap is not forecasted to close until the year 2196. Women are underrepresented in most senior-level leadership positions. They account for less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, less than 15% of executive officers at those companies, and only 6% of partners in venture capital firms. It also explains why, when we look at other workplace minorities, people of different ethnicities and sexual orientation, for example, the situation is even worse.

The answer to the “why“ question is: unconscious bias. The British schoolchildren in the TV ad, who were just five to seven years of age, had already absorbed society’s gender stereotypes. The poor awareness surrounding this powerful type of prejudice – it is commonly called implicit bias – has created a frustrating situation. While many organizations invest substantial resources in Diversity and Inclusion programs (D&I) to advance equality, it remains all talk, with no significant results.

My opinion is that the reaction of most of us at hearing those two words – “implicit bias“ – is the reason for this lack of progress. What is that reaction? Basically, we all think we are immune to unconscious bias; we dismiss it as a non-issue. We all think we are good people and hence it cannot be possible that we are biased.

I disagree. We all have this embedded prejudice and we are not aware of it and we are reluctant to look into it. But if we want to create real change, if we want to remove this significant roadblock to equality, we must educate ourselves about these biases and talk about them.

Such in-depth exploration is important because bias is complex. Bias has developed over centuries and is deeply influenced by our cultural and societal norms. I invite you to read the U.S. Declaration of Independence as one example of the stereotypes that have surrounded us for centuries. The Declaration states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.“

I am sure that if you pay attention you notice the word “men.“ Indeed, that word literally meant men because women in the United States did not even gain the right to vote until 1920 – more than 150 years after the Declaration was written. Yet today we still read, study and are strongly influenced by the Declaration and its biased language. To some extent, we have inherited and internalized the biased worldview of the Declaration and other such powerful cultural influences

There are biological bases for this type of human behavior. Our brains are designed to take specific neuron patterns quickly by associating images with specific experiences, cultural habits and norms. These neuron patterns are the result of our own evolution, and are aimed at protecting and preserving us.

The more complex or possibly threatening a situation is, the faster our brains make these associations. Our brains speedily associate a tiger with danger because a split second can spell the difference between life and death. But this same mental process prompts us to make other important though non life-threatening associations – such as the association the British schoolchildren make between being a surgeon and being male. They make this association, of course, because it is an image they have grown up with.

Additionally, our powerful brains have evolved to simplify complex situations. When we do not know enough about another person we categorize her or him based on the stereotypes coming from culture and societal interactions. By definition, these stereotypes are inaccurate and prejudicial.

Once these mental processes are understood we have two options: to draw attention to the insidious nature of these subconscious influences, or to remain in denial. Either way, these powerful implicit biases will always impact our decision making, but if we are aware of their strength, we can at least try to counteract them. Armed with this awareness, we can seek to prevent these widespread biases from exerting harmful effects not only on interpersonal behavior but also on policy, employment practices, public life, and so on. Executives in leadership positions who seize the opportunity to become more knowledgeable about implicit bias are in an excellent position to create a workplace environment that will encourage others to do the same.

I invite you to become curious about your hidden biases. Invest in D&I programs and campaigns that increase awareness of implicit bias and take specific actions to counter it. One simple thing you can do as a leader is talking openly and admitting your own bias. It will give an examples to others to start talking about rather than hiding from it. I do not think any executive, or any of us, has a good excuse for continuing not to do so.

If as an executive you are committed to equality, do not be uncomfortable around those two words. We all have biases; in this we are equals. I myself am a feminist and an advocate of diversity and inclusion, and yet on a recent trip to Southeast Asia, I found myself uncomfortable as I watched women engage in heavy factory and construction work. Despite my strong beliefs, I had an implicit bias: I was raised to believe women were too fragile to do such labor. (you can read the article here)

Uncover your unconscious bias and make more informed decisions for yourself and for your organization.