Re-thinking unconscious bias training: structure vs agency

Unconscious Bias

Did you know that Australian CEOs are more likely to be a man named Michael or Andrew than a female? They are also highly likely to share similar education and business experience, are usually promoted internally and typically have no global experience.

And if you have aspirations to be a CEO in America, it also helps to be tall, according to a Fortune 500 survey that found the average American CEO is 6 foot tall, some 6.4 centimetres taller than the average American man.

Female CEOs are just as rare in America and Europe with women making up less than 5 per cent of CEO’s leading the largest American and European companies according to 2018 survey by global recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles.

It’s a bleak representation of the lack of diversity in leadership globally, despite the fact that every industry is facing the same challenging VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) operating environments, which increasingly requires a diversity of thinking and experiences to adequately prepare and respond to change and disruption.

It begs the question: how are companies preparing themselves to survive in this increasingly VUCA world if they keep seeking leaders from the same narrow talent pool?

It’s the very question employment expert Conrad Liveris asked in his 2018 research, which found that Australian ASX 200 companies remained conservative in their executive appointments preferring to seek out candidates with similar genders, experiences and backgrounds. Additionally, most appointments were domestic hires despite the growing globalisation of businesses requiring the need for global experience.

The short answer is that Australian companies are not leveraging the diversity of the talent pool for leadership roles and the biggest problem here is the continuing role of unconscious bias.

Here’s the other bad news. Despite the huge investment in training on unconscious bias, progress towards greater diversity in leadership roles remains glacially slow.

Unconscious bias or implicit bias is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favour of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. As a result of unconscious biases, certain people benefit and other people don’t.

Most prejudices expose themselves under pressure when our brains are forced to digest complex or multiple sets of information quickly, or perform a routine task that doesn’t require concentration. These events trigger the auto-pilot thinking that is hard-wired into the functioning of our brains, which forces us to sort people into groups, recognise patterns and look for common traits and similarities.

In today’s fast-paced world we are faced with an overwhelming volume of data – in fact 11 million pieces of different stimuli at any one moment – yet our brains have not evolved to be able to efficiently and objectively process this information.

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Which, as Noble Peace Prize winning Economist Daniel Kahneman, outlined in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, is why our brains have evolved to develop two distinct modes of thinking: Fast – auto-pilot thinking that is triggered outside of our conscious control and which is typically highly emotional and incorrect; and slow thinking, which is more conscious, logical and factual. One mode of thinking has the objective of enabling efficiency, while the second slower mode of thinking enables accuracy.

The problem is, in this fast-paced world, where multi-tasking is the norm and where technological devices increasingly soak up our attention, we spend most of our active thinking time in unconscious or auto-pilot mode.

Given this, how many decisions about talent do we make unconsciously, where our prejudices are triggered through the use of words on job application forms about our gender, where we went to school and previous employment history?

Behavioural scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal (not a man. Not Anglo-European) says neuroscience demonstrates that biases are often formed throughout life and held at the subconscious level, mainly through ‘societal and parental conditioning’.

“We gather millions of bits of information and our brain processes that information in a certain way – unconsciously categorizing and formatting it into familiar patterns. Though most of us have difficulty accepting or acknowledging it, we all do it. Gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, body size, profession etc., all influence the assessments that we make of people and form the basis of our relationship with others, and the world at large,” Dr Agarwal says.

Dr Agarwal writes about how those biases manifest and repeat in the hiring of men over women.

For organizational leaders, this is incredibly important to understand. Unconscious biases don’t only create issues of equity. Letting unconscious bias affect how we hire, lead teams and organisations, or value the work of some people over others, will have detrimental impacts on workplace culture. That culture is the essence of your business and creates the social norms of how your business operates and what kind of bad behaviours your leaders are prepared to ignore or tolerate.

Raising awareness and taking action on unconscious bias is a major catalyst to helping build inclusive workplaces where employees feel valued and respected, are more engaged and collaborative, and have a higher motivation to be innovative.

But taking your leaders through training on unconscious bias will have very little impact on making your organisation more inclusive and diverse unless you also look at removing institutionalized barriers that create or reinforce inequality in organisations.

Recent research has found that training in implicit bias in the male-dominated STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) academia has had some success in changing individual-led beliefs and actions about gender bias, but it is largely ineffective in reducing institutionalised inequities.

A meta analysis review of training outcomes (insert link to research) has found that women remain disproportionately represented, are less likely to receive faculty appointments, obtain leadership positions, receive equitable wages and receive grant funding and are more likely than men to leave.

The research found that the focus on implicit training actually reinforces unconscious biases through a focus on individual choices (agency) over structure (institutional, organisational and political) systems. A focus purely on agency ignores the latter’s role in framing not only the beliefs and actions of individuals but also the rules, regulations, laws, and culture that govern social institutions.

“A focus on implicit bias ultimately obscures the many interconnecting layers of gender inequity and hampers opportunities for meaningful and lasting change. Such change will require a suite of comprehensive interventions designed to improve pay equity, facilitate more equitable and transparent hiring and promotion practices, expand mentorship opportunities for women and inform changes to parental leave legislation, child- care policies, and flexible work arrangements.”

Strategies to dismantle the institutionalization of gender bias include a focus on participatory initiatives, leveraging the knowledge and experiences of a diverse and representative group of employees, particularly women, in the development and evaluation of institutional interventions and initiatives.

Design thinking techniques that utilise empathy mapping in the review and re-design of key people processes around recruitment, talent and remuneration have proven highly successful because they challenge not only the biases inherent in the key decision makers (leaders) but also dismantle the inherent bias in the governing structures, cultures and systems of organisations which have often gone unchecked for years.

Executive Central has experienced first-hand the progress that can be made on improving the representation of females in leadership roles through greater understanding of the needs of females in the workplace and the identification and removal of the institutionalised barriers that promote gender inequity in organisations.

To find out more about how Executive Central can help your organisation demolish institutionalised bias through targeted training, organisational re-design and consulting solutions, see our Unconscious Bias workshops or Diversity & Inclusion by Design solutions.

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