The fourth post in a five-part blog series on women in leadership
By Priti Shah
Unconscious bias is our brain’s ability to automatically jump to conclusions without us being aware of our thought process. This ability to make quick judgments is hard-wired into our brains to help us be more efficient. It is part of our human nature to rely on unconscious bias – and it can be difficult to work against our human nature.
The science of unconscious bias causes us to rely on assumptions based on things we think are true. We think that people who look like us, share similar backgrounds, speak the same language – these are “our” people. Good people. People we trust. People we want to work with. We like what is most like us. When we know that someone exists inside or outside our circle of “sameness” – how does this affect the way we perceive them? How does this affect the way we work together?
If you know that someone is different from you – can you stay open minded? What benefits will come from making connections with people outside our circle? Research has shown that a more diverse workforce leads to better business results:
“Workforce diversity can bring about an increase in productivity and competitive advantages. Employers can offer more solutions to customers because of new ideas and processes brought into the organization. Workplace diversity increases employee morale and causes employees to desire to work more effectively and efficiently. Diversity in leadership within a firm allows managers to bring in new skills and methods for achieving unity within their teams.”
Organizations receive many benefits by nurturing diversity. But overcoming our desire to hire and work with those who are most like us can be difficult. Here are three ideas to transform your own unconscious biases:
- Recognize when you are reinforcing biases. Is a female colleague late for work because her child is sick? Or is it because she was at an early-morning breakfast meeting? If a male colleague is late – which reason would you assume? Recognize these moments when you are jumping to conclusions without facts or evidence. Keep open to ideas that may not meet your expectations. That breakfast meeting may have run late because your female colleague is negotiating a promotion.
- Reframe thoughts and words. Once you become more aware of your assumptions – match your words to promote openness and diverse options. For example – when introducing the CEO of the organization at a company-wide meeting – is the CEO introduced as “our senior woman in leadership” or as “our CEO”? How would the organization react if the CEO was introduced as “our senior man in leadership”? The words you choose can make a tremendous difference in how you and those in your organization begin to question and try to change biases.
- Encourage organizational culture that supports diverse viewpoints. This is where you can call to action the good intentions you’ve had all along. Question hiring practices and promotion practices. Influence change where you are able. Require thoughtful conversations and metrics that build diversity into the equation. This could mean requiring three women be included in every C-Suite promotion pool. This could mean men are considered in conversations about parental leave.
Identifying unconscious biases and supporting others who want to make changes will lead to better results for everyone.
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Coming next week is Why Women Must Negotiate to Succeed.
Priti Shah is Vice President, Leadership Product Strategy and Corporate Development at Skillsoft.
 Green, Kelli et al. Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits, Challenges, and the Required Managerial Tools University of Florida, 2012.