Why you can never hear enough about unconscious bias

There's one thing Helen Conway will continually tell you: she's had enough of reading research about unconscious bias at work.

At a CEDA leadership event on Monday, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency director said she'd be happy to get past the out-in-the-open conscious bias first, and then deal with the hidden stuff later.

It followed a similar comment she made at a UN Women event earlier this year. "I don't care whether attitudes are conscious, or unconscious," she said at the time. "There's a huge amount of talk about unconscious bias. I'm not knocking the work that's been done to address it but frankly there's a whole lot of conscious bias."

She's got a point. We don't need a survey to tell us unconscious bias hurts women in the workplace; we merely need to look at the reality. The full-time gender pay gap between men and women still sits at about 17.5%, while women continue to represent just a tiny proportion of board and senior leadership positions.

And yet more research keeps emerging into the hidden impediments to a woman's promotion, appointment or ability to perform successfully in her job. The latest is from Melbourne Business School's Centre for Leadership, which takes a meta-analytical approach and examines 117 different studies on the issue, dating back to 1977.

Even report author Professor Bob Wood noted that some may wonder why there's yet another report on the effects of unconscious bias on women in the workplace, during his outline of the findings on Tuesday. He said plenty of women would be unsurprised by the outcome.

So is it helpful to know that unconscious bias exists at work? Does it make any difference whether or not women are continually reminded we're treated less favourably than men for doing exactly the same work? Should we be interested to hear it makes no difference whether we act in a masculine or feminine way; that we're pre-judged based on our gender regardless?

We should care. And we should continually be reminded of the problem.

New research on the issue is particularly worthwhile if it includes practical ideas and strategies for managing the problem, as the MBS report does. The paper was released in line with a one-day intensive workshop for executives and diversity leaders to learn strategies for dealing with the findings. Its executive summary includes a number of initial key starting points, to be more comprehensively outlined when the full report is out in December.

This is not just about how men deal with women, or even how each gender should deal with each other. It's about learning to recognise how our own socialisation creeps into the judgements we make on others. Women are not alone in being affected by unconscious bias – and given we know so much about how such bias can hurt, we can play a major part in helping to identify and overcome these underlying aspects of human behaviour.

But as Conway's also said repeatedly, we don't have much time to hang around on gender equality. Whether gender-based bias is hidden or out in the open for everyone to see, we need to get past it.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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