How to Tackle Unconscious Bias That Keeps Women Out of the C-Suite

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Up until a few weeks ago, the highest priority on the talent agenda was addressing diversity hiring challenges. Coronavirus has understandably diverted the attention of HR and recruitment leaders for the time being, but once this crisis is behind us, diversity hiring is likely to be right back at the top of the to-do list once again.

I spoke with the founders of CEO Worldwide and Female Executive Search to gain a better understanding of gender diversity challenges at work and how further progress can be made. Over the course of these conversations, it became clear to me that the key obstacle organizations will have to overcome is unconscious bias in both recruitment and employee development.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

In one way or another, every human being is biased. We naturally make intuitive decisions about other people based on their age, gender, physical appearance, and other demographic details. We stereotype and make assumptions about people even without realizing it. This behavior is what we’re referring to when we talk about “unconscious bias.”

Left unchecked, unconscious bias can influence our judgements of and behavior toward others. It’s easy to see why allowing unconscious bias to influence our recruiting and promotion decisions could be so detrimental — and unfortunately, for a long time, bias has driven these decisions. One only needs to look at the presence — or absence — of women in the C-suite to confirm that statement.

How Unconscious Bias Affects Female Leaders

Put simply, gender-based stereotypes and unconscious bias toward women have long hindered the progression of women to leadership positions. For example, just 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women in 2019 — and that’s an all-time high!

Women are often socially expected to be nurturing and “likable.” While those may seem like relatively innocent assumptions, the problem is that women who don’t conform to these perceptions are often socially and professionally punished for their perceived “failure” to act in accordance with the expectations of others.

Moreover, traditional leadership traits include charisma, self-assurance, and assertiveness. According to gender stereotypes, these are predominantly “male” traits. When women exhibit these traits, they’re often viewed negatively instead of being praised for their leadership. For example, consider the common perception that “men are decisive, but women are bossy.”

If your team is not trained to understand, identify, and counter their unconscious biases, they will likely allow their biases to influence recruiting and promotion decisions. When you repeatedly choose male candidates over equally qualified female candidates, you’re not only perpetuating a socially harmful unconscious bias, but you’re also doing your company a disservice. Research repeatedly shows that more diverse companies perform better, in part because more diverse teams have access to more skills and perspectives, which allows them to better understand their markets and innovate more readily. Read more here…

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