The hidden enemy hurting women in the workplace

Women are in a lose-lose situation when it comes to unconscious bias in male-dominated industries, with a new report finding women are treated less favourably irrespective of whether they act in a stereotypically masculine or feminine way.

The report, from the Centre for Ethical Leadership and MBS University of Melbourne, and based on meta-analysis of 117 studies comparing men and women matched on all dimensions except gender, found women suffer a number of significant impediments due to unconscious bias in the workplace.

The report found that when acting exactly like their male peers women are seen as less competent, less likeable, less hirable, less desirable as leaders and perceived as less likely to succeed in their careers.

Such hidden bias can affect everything from risk assessments to customer interactions and capital investment decisions – and are more pronounced in male-dominated occupations.

Report author Professor Bob Wood told an audience in Melbourne on Tuesday that the meta-analysis covered studies that met the "highest scientific standards" and spanned 1977 to 2012, with the majority from the past couple of years.

He said with so much information available some wondered why there was a need for more data, but that the research would further "challenge our thinking and provide rich input into our approaches and strategies".

According to Wood, tackling the problem is not easy, especially given unconscious bias is human nature. "Unconscious bias is so automatic and instantaneous they happen faster than we can process the information," he said. "Bias arises because our unconscious knowledge and our fast thinking do two things: they filter out information and lead us to very restrictive responses."

He said organisations and managers responsible for looking into the issue should identify targeted "bias hotspots" to work on.

He used meetings as an example, saying factors such as the fast flow of unstructured information, a need to support loyalties, and the pressure of performance and self-presentation make such situations a particularly dangerous hotspot for unconscious bias.

Wood believes awareness and compensatory strategies are quick wins for dealing with the problem, which starts with training employees to identify hot spots. "You can't remove the knowledge, but if you can slow down your thinking at the critical moment and make it conscious, then you've got a chance," he said. "The aim here is to get people to identify a bias hotspot and then to slow down their thinking."

The reason workplace gender diversity initiatives often fail comes down to a lack of imagination around strategy, Wood said. People simply fall back on what they know and do.

But the benefits of working through the difficulties are vast. "Diversity is the lifeblood of human development. If there's no learning, there's no progress and this is an argument for it," he said.

The report recommends four levels of intervention for counteracting unconscious bias:

  • Raising awareness of embedded knowledge and impacts on decision-making
  • Strategies and tools for effective slower, conscious thinking in bias hotspots such as meetings, recruitment and promotion processes and task allocations
  • Audit and redesign of systems and processes to provide transparency and appropriate checks and balances
  • Targeted culture change


The full report will be available in December.

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