A few weeks ago, I was facilitating a workshop on “Unconscious Biases” and how it prevents greater workforce participation of women, for the department heads at a manufacturing plant. Amar, 38, M.Sc, M.Tech, Head of Quality, was one of the participants who engaged me unremittingly with his questions and doubts. “Ma’am, if I am not comfortable allowing my own sister or daughter to work outside the home, why should I support the hiring of other women? Won’t it make me a hypocrite?”. “You speak about biases. I do not allow a woman to work on some projects because I am concerned about her safety. Is this a bias, Ma’am??”. “Yes, I believe that men and women are different. This is how it has been for centuries. Will things change suddenly just because we sit in an AC room and discuss about biases?”
Today, we are at a point of inflection in our lives at the workplace and at the home, where there is an opportunity for great change. Understanding biases are a positive step in this direction. Biases are a very simple shortcut of our mental processing which exhibits as unintentional people preferences. It is a kind of software, a type of programming that we have installed in our brains as a result of exposure to certain events, behaviour or experiences which leads us to form ‘opinions’, except that these opinions don’t just remain in the periphery. They become the guiding principles with which we then start ‘judging’ those around us. When our unconscious brain consistently absorbs certain things appearing together, for instance, a father being aggressive, or a nurse being a woman, there is a neural wiring that associates these occurrences and believes that this is true of 100% of all fathers and all nurses.
There is very valuable literature available on different kinds of biases – affinity bias, halo bias, recency bias, projection bias, to name a few. Patriarchy is one such bias. A social and ideological construct which allots specific roles to men and women, with the underlying theory that men are superior to women, patriarchy manifests as derived power differences between the genders. While it has been in existence for centuries now, patriarchal bias receives regular extensions of life by skewed representations of men and women in the media, at home, within the community and by extension, in work environments too.
In a patriarchal workplace, women are not considered central to things. You will find a large number of secretaries, receptionists and other peripheral roles being occupied by women, with the popular refrain “Women are better at this”. Likewise, roles that are more strategic in nature are not performed by women, because there is a subtle undercurrent that women cannot be leaders or thinkers. Even when women are career-intentional, their choices are questioned. Jobs are defined with a heavy influence of gender stereotypes. Recruiters perpetuate patriarchy by rejecting women applicants who wish to return from a break. When the old boys’ club is strong, patriarchy thrives with generous instances of sexism, jokes in poor taste and stereotypical representations of women. Flexible working is disliked and discouraged in a patriarchal workplace since anything not conforming to the norm is seen as a threat.
The good news is that biases – even of the patriarchal variety – are easily removed. All it takes is a sensitization that the bias no longer holds true and is irrelevant. Even more importantly, once we are aware that our biases end up affecting our assessments of how we hire, promote or advance our team-members, we become more conscious of our decisions and this mindfulness ensures that biases are kept in check.
Here are a few ideas for de-biasing your workplace:
- Question why certain jobs are always performed by certain types/gender of people. Redefine job roles to make them more inclusive.
- Having a truly diverse workforce is an important change point. Challenge your assumptions by hiring capable people from diverse backgrounds and creating a level playing field for them to prove their worth. Engage a recruitment agency which has built a network of diverse candidates.
- Identify and celebrate new role models. For example, people working flexibly or women professionals returning after a break. Use these stories to challenge and modify stereotypes.
- Create a cheat-sheet of the key biases which plague your workforce. Do you find a “mini-me” syndrome? That’s affinity bias. Do you find that one problem being blown out of proportion? That’s horn bias. Similarly, when the woman team-mate is always called to cut and distribute the cake after every birthday, that’s patriarchy. If you go through the definitions at critical times, for instance, just before you make talent decisions, you reduce the effect of your biases, almost by 80%
- Get your CEO and key stakeholders to be part of sponsorship programs that commit to removing biases from your workplace. Create a campaign to work towards agile inclusion.
Discussions that open up different points of view are crucial to instituting change, like the questions that Amar raised. Questions, even provocative ones, imply that a person is ready to have his or her views challenged and changed. With movements like #MeToo, there are strident discussions about women’s safety, workplace acceptance and economic empowerment. Even those who were agnostic to these topics, have begun expressing concern and a need for deeper awareness. Yes, these are difficult questions, but not without answers. The ones who question are already on a path to have their biases removed. It is the silent ones that I worry about. It would take me several more sessions to be able to get them to a point of accepting that biases could exist in their assumptions.