Unconscious bias

castellTanya Castell is a portfolio non-executive director and a founding member and chair of Changing the Chemistry, a voluntary group aiming to improve board effectiveness through increased diversity of thought.

What is unconscious bias? Why do we need quotas in the short term?

When I started out on my own non-executive portfolio career, I soon began to focus much more on why there were so few women in the boardroom, despite serious efforts to address a lack of gender balance. While there are many reasons cited, one aspect that is not discussed enough is the impact of unconscious bias on recruitment decisions.

Cultural behaviours and attitudes are deeply-rooted and many decisions are influenced by them without the decision-makers being aware of it. Back in 2011 I was pointed towards Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness, which highlighted to me how significant this could be:

“There is one reason why, despite a great deal of goodwill and commitment and equality legislation, it has proved so hard to shift women into top roles, shovel venture capital into ethnic businesses or train more male midwives. It isn’t the only reason, of course, but the fact that we like people like ourselves, are unconsciously biased in their favour, has a big impact. Stereotypes are energy-saving devices – they let us make shortcuts that feel just fine. That’s why they’re so persistent.

The famous development of blind auditions for new symphony members provided a graphic illustration of this point. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin and Princeton’s Cecilia Rouse found that when musicians were allowed to audition behind screens, where their gender could not influence the evaluation of their music, women’s chances of making it through the first round increased by 50 percent – and in the final rounds by 300 per cent.”

In general, men and women BOTH unconsciously devalue the contributions of women because of longstanding and powerful embedded stereotypes about the differing capabilities of men and women and their place in the society. Steinpreis, Anders & Ritzke (1999) sent out the CV of an early career researcher seeking employment to 238 academic psychologists in the USA. The gender of the applicant was varied (Brian or Karen) but the CVs were otherwise the same. The outcomes showed that both male and female academics were more likely to want to employ a male applicant than a female applicant with an identical record. Similarly, both sexes reported their perception that the male applicant had more adequate teaching, research and service experience compared with the female applicant – despite her having, in fact, an identical record.

Similar results were seen in Moss-Racusin et al (2012). A randomised double-blind study using 127 people, within science faculties, rated the application materials of a student who was randomly assigned either a male or female name for a position as a laboratory manager. Selectors consistently rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. Again, the gender of the selector did not affect responses.

The question, therefore, is how best to overcome the unconscious bias influence in the recruitment and selection process. Being aware of the biases you have is a start and, if you are interested in assessing what your unconscious biases are, there is an online set of tests, implicit association tests, that can be done to assess this in certain areas (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/).

The simplest answer, however, is to set quotas for women on boards, to ensure that women make it and become part of the accepted norm of what a company board should look like. This would also provide the role models for those in the pipeline. I would like to believe that once there are more women at the top, this will adjust the biases people have. Quotas should therefore only be needed as a short term measure that can then be removed.

I continue to be surprised by how many women seem to object to quotas, which they regard as unmeritocratic. Perhaps they do not realise that unconscious bias is very often preventing the selection process from being truly meritocratic. Additionally I would suggest that perhaps the skills more often attributed to women may not always be valued as highly as the skills more commonly possessed by men, again because they are not the skills that the alpha males who have reached board level are looking for – so in a fair contest, women may score highly in less valued attributes, but less well in more highly-prized characteristics. Having more women in the boardroom will help change that perspective.

At the Women’s Forum 2014, asked whether quotas would mean that organisations “hire women just because they’re women”, the participants unanimously rejected the argument, noting that “not all men got their jobs because they were great”, and more importantly that “women should not be kept down just because they are women”.

At Davos in January 2014, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, who had originally been opposed to quotas, said: “I soon realised that unless we had targets, if not quotas, there was no way to make headway.” She added that quotas were “unfortunate but necessary”. Lagarde says she was “strongly against” quotas until she joined Baker & McKenzie, which “completely changed” her view. “I grew up in a big international law firm that I love, but the number of female partners was so low and had been so low for such a long time that I soon realised that unless we have at least targets, if not quotas, there was no way we were going to have a significant number of females in the partnership” she said.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the undersecretary-general and executive director of UN Women, and on the panel with Lagarde and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook at Davos, agreed. “We may not like them,” she acknowledged, “but for now, unfortunately, we need them.” In defending her support of quotas, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that “there’s an assumption that men are there because they’re good.” Ms Sandberg noted that quotas would help address the “tyranny of low expectations” among women.

1 Comment on Unconscious bias

  1. Beautifully put, Tanya. I agree with everything you say. Unconscious bias is a ******* to improve simply because it’s unconscious – and so many people don’t even see that there is an issue to amend! I have also come to believe that quotas (for all under-represented groups) will provide welcome change and diversity of thought and experience; and will dilute the group think and homogenity we have had for so long and which contributed to the 2008 crash and continues to deliver shock and disappointment (Co-Op bank, bonuses at RBS etc) as much as it does success. Taking into account all that is said here in the magazine by Shona Robison, Audrey Birt and others, as we move forward with a modern Scotland, we need to see broader diversity of behaviours, style and influence and quite simply, quotas will help us get there. If we take Shona Robison’s prediction that by 2020 Scottish organisations will look very different, we need to force the pace in sensible and proactive ways.

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