Gender Equality - Overcoming Unconscious Bias at Work

Gender Equality - Overcoming Unconscious Bias at Work

20 Sep 2023

Human Focus International

News & updates from Human Focus International

View Profile

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 Our experiences, values and beliefs can be incorrect or outdated.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.

Unconscious bias can impact men as well as women

How Unconscious Bias Impacts Everybody

The story above is a pretty blatant example of unconscious gender bias. But it’s essential to be aware that how unconscious bias manifests itself can be much more nuanced. A woman may not be considered for a role because the employer thinks she might take too much time off if she becomes pregnant, for instance. Women can also sometimes lose out on positions because they’re perceived as less serious or not as level-headed as men. Remember our CEO example at the start?

Unconscious bias can impact men as well as women. A man might find it challenging to get a job in a role that has been traditionally viewed as ‘feminine’, such as in the fashion industry. Or an employer may unconsciously view a man as a possible threat and refuse to hire him. Men may find it difficult to get positions that involve working with children, for instance.

Ultimately, unconscious bias impacts everybody. Everyone has the right to be free from discrimination and prejudice at work. We should all be judged on our merits and skills, not our appearance, gender, age, religion, race or sexual orientation.

Five Ways to Fight Unconscious Bias and Achieve Gender Equality at Work

We often make incorrect assumptions about people, especially in the workplace. But people should be judged on their merits, not on their gender. Achieving absolute gender equality in the workplace involves taking steps to overcome unconscious bias. If you own or manage a business, here are five things you can do to improve gender equality in the workplace:

1. Be Aware of the Impact of Unconscious Bias

Make sure you and your team know how unconscious bias impacts decision-making. A good way of being more aware of your unconscious biases is to take a gender-career Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed by Harvard University. This test is designed to uncover our ingrained attitudes or beliefs.

2. Implement Blind Hiring Policies

Blind hiring involves hiding the details of a potential candidate during the recruitment process. Recruiters assess candidates’ resumes without knowing their sex, age, race or religion. This process helps to eliminate unconscious bias.

3. Review Salaries and Positions

Do you have the right people in the right positions at your work? Are your salaries fair and equal? To be sure, you can have an outside consultant perform a gender pay gap analysis on your business.

4. Encourage Your People to Speak Out

Let your staff know that they can speak their mind on issues of women’s rights and gender equality. Do female employees often feel shouted down by their male counterparts? Do women at your workplace feel like they can rise through the ranks? Is a particular staff member making decisions that are obviously because of an unconscious bias? Let your teams know they are free to discuss issues relating to gender equality and unconscious bias.

5. Provide Gender Equality Training

Empowering people to stand up for themselves regarding issues of gender equality isn’t easy. Help your people recognise unconscious bias in themselves and others with professional equality and diversity training. 

Create a Better Workplace with Equality and Diversity Training

Equality and Diversity training courses teach participants to recognise and deal with bias and workplace discrimination. Abide by the Equality Act 2010 requirements and create a fairer and more inclusive workplace for everyone.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from Human Focus International, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

Related Articles

Human Focus International

Human Focus International

For more information from Human Focus International, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

Want to learn more?

View Profile

Get industry-related content straight to your inbox

By signing up to our site you are agreeing to our privacy policy