Fighting with shadows: navigating unconscious bias in the workplace.

Unconsciously, we gravitate towards people who remind us of ourselves. If you stop and take a look at your friends you might be surprised to find how many of them look, act and think like you. Most of us believe we’re open‑minded and objective, but our beliefs and values strongly influence the way we see and evaluate both others and ourselves. These beliefs and values are gained from our family, cultural background and life experiences.

In the workplace this can be seen in those who unconsciously mix with and promote like-minded people. The Australian Institute of Management defines unconscious bias as ‘ingrained stereotypes that we hold and that inform our decision-making but of which we are unaware’. In other words, the widely held mind-sets that are rarely acknowledged but that create salient barriers, especially for women.

A 2012 study found that when compared with their male peers, women are rated down irrespective of whether they behave in a stereotypically masculine or stereotypically feminine way. The research from Yale in the US involved a randomised double-blind study, where scientists from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Results found that the ‘female’ applicants were rated significantly lower than the ‘males’ in competence, employability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student. The application itself was the same; only the name had changed.

Another example of unconscious bias in the workplace can be found in policies around maternity leave, which embed the view that women are the primary carers. While everyone agrees diversity, resilience and flexibility are the hallmarks of a successful and productive organisation, it requires a shift in conditions and cultural norms for men as well as women. Strong business practices allow both men and women to care for and nurture their families at the same time as maintaining their sense of self and having fulfilling careers. Men must join this conversation too—publicly, candidly, and loudly. It would be transformative if more men opened up about their desires regarding work and family. It would start to normalise flexibility, minimise guilt and anxiety, and consequently maximise productivity.

But these cultural norms that we’re trying to shift are underpinned by our own individual beliefs. Unfortunately, we are too often our own worst enemies. If we examine our own unconscious bias we can see how that might be informing a number of negative beliefs we hold about ourselves and others. These beliefs become self-fulfilling—when you focus on something, you attract it. In my case, when I returned from maternity leave and found my career completely stymied, I started to embody the belief that I wasn’t good enough at my job and that I was half the worker I used to be now that I had children to care for. I looked for evidence to confirm this belief and ignored or distorted information to the contrary. Through my actions I was supporting the spurious notion that part-timers aren’t as dedicated and that working mothers can’t have it all, further reinforcing others’ unconscious bias.

The best way to overcome this kind of career shadow is to start with you. You have more power to change yourself than you might think. Identify and let go of any negative beliefs you’re holding and replace them with new, positive ones. Ask yourself if the beliefs you hold are serving you—what price are you paying for holding onto this belief? How is it hurting you? Where did this belief come from? Can you find evidence to disprove it? Once you’ve examined and discarded the beliefs that aren’t serving you, create new empowering ones. Find a good role model. If there are no suitable role models around you, create your own definition of what makes a great leader and become that leader.

Once we become aware of, and start raising awareness of, unconscious bias in the workplace, then we can start to shift the organisational culture to be more inclusive, more flexible and more diverse.

Are you a mother or father who has struggled with unconscious bias in the workplace? Tell us your story in the comments below.


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