This informal CPD article, 'Gender Equality - Overcoming Unconscious Bias at Work,' was provided by Human Focus International, a global leader in skilled behaviour change in the workplace. They assist clients in achieving world-class business performance by helping to build skills and change habits that keep workers safer, healthier and more productive.
Picture a successful CEO in your mind. Someone with an incredibly high salary, a lavish lifestyle and responsibility for millions of pounds and thousands of workers. A person who is resilient, determined, business savvy and a bit of a renegade. Did you picture a man as your CEO? Or was it a woman?
Unfortunately, many people still unconsciously cling to the stereotype of the male hard-charging businessman. Issues with gender equality and women’s rights in the workplace are still very much with us. In this article, we look at overcoming unconscious bias and achieving gender equality at work.
What is Unconscious Bias?
In general, we all have certain unconscious biases that may influence our everyday decisions. These unconscious biases are based on our life experiences, beliefs, and values. We’re presented with a lot of information when we meet or learn about someone. We must process this data quickly to make a judgement about the person. The brain uses our unconscious biases as a shortcut to decide quickly.
Unfortunately, the brain isn’t always on the money. Our unconscious biases are often formed by inaccurate cultural stereotypes. Our experiences, values and beliefs can be incorrect or outdated. We must be aware of our unconscious biases to make truly informed decisions.
Why Gender Equality in the Workplace is Still an Issue
It might not be the most comfortable thing to hear, but gender equality at work is still a significant issue in the UK.
Women still earn much less than men in the UK with a gender pay gap between full-time employees of 8.3%, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Only 6% of CEOs in FTSE 100 companies are women. Women comprise only 35% of civil service permanent secretaries, per the London School of Economics figures. Other data shows that women represent just 35% of local councillors. Gender equality in UK local councils isn’t expected to be achieved until 2077.
Top-level financial advisors believed female investors were less knowledgeable and had less control over their portfolios than men. Surprisingly, this was regardless of the gender of the investment advisor, according to a European Journal of Finance study. Clearly, improvement in gender equality and women’s rights at work is still needed.
Some experts are concerned that unconscious biases are blocking gender equality. As Helen Thomas, Project Delivery Lead at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), put it in a recent interview with the Association for Project Management (APM):
“…a lot of women are looking to develop their careers but are coming across barriers. There’s the feeling that they can’t go for a promotion or a new role because of their out-of-work commitments, balancing their role as mothers or carers, for example, which disproportionately impacts women… I would like to see the conversation move on to whether there are any barriers that may be arising unconsciously.”
A Fictional Illustration of Unconscious Bias and Gender Equality at Work
Brian owns a successful concreting business. He’s expanded his operations and now needs to hire more staff. On his desk is a pile of resumes. Brian briefly flips through them and sees a resume from a young woman named Nicole. He chuckles to himself and puts the resume to one side. “Why did she even apply?” Brian thinks, “A girl won’t have the strength for this work.”
Brian doesn’t know that Nicole is an accomplished weightlifter who has won many international competitions. She’s more than capable of handling a sack of concrete mix. Nicole could even lift Brian himself above her head if she wanted to! Brian, unfortunately, has succumbed to his own unconscious bias. He’s missed the chance to employ a competent person. Brian made an incorrect assumption based on nothing more than gender. Which is too bad for Brian and a tough break for Nicole. Brian lost out on a loyal and competent employee because he didn’t take the time to evaluate her resume without bias.