Unconscious bias in the workplace: Are you guilty?

Did you know that out of identical resumes with a man and a woman’s name, studies have shown those with a man’s name are considered […]

Did you know that out of identical resumes with a man and a woman’s name, studies have shown those with a man’s name are considered 30% more worthy of a hire?

A few weeks ago, we spent the afternoon with Interpublic Group (IPG) at the Women’s Leadership Network event ‘Be the Ally’, co-hosted by Facebook. We heard from women leaders on becoming allies and overcoming adversity and particularly enjoyed Facebook’s Managing Unconscious Bias training session, where we learned to recognise four common workplace biases and correct them:

  1. Performance biaswhen the majority group is judged by their expected potential vs. minority groups being judged by their proven accomplishments
  2. Performance attribution biaswhen some individuals are perceived as ‘naturally talented’ vs. others being presumed to have received help or ‘gotten lucky’
  3. Competence/likeability trade-offa man is more well-liked when he’s successful, but the opposite is true for women
  4. Maternal biaswhen mothers, or women who want to be mothers, are viewed as unwilling or unable to be good employees

During the session, we had a chance to reflect on our personal experiences with these biases and discuss ways to take action to correct them.

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to not have experienced any strong biases towards or against me. But as a young Asian woman who’s small in stature and slightly introverted, I’ve encountered the effects of performance attribution bias – being less likely to have influence in groups and getting interrupted more.

Typically, being (or looking like) one of the youngest in the room puts you at a disadvantage. I’ve had clients comment in surprise that I looked younger than they pictured and question my experience in the industry, despite knowing that I was the Account Manager and project lead.

Another time, during a networking session, a guest pointedly directed all her attention to a European colleague beside me throughout the conversation – even while I was responding to her query. I’ve also seen how bigger and louder personalities command more attention in a room, sometimes even speaking above or cutting off younger or more soft-spoken individuals during discussions.

Taking action against unconscious bias

Though not entirely focused on gender, this form of performance attribution bias can be corrected the same way. Simple tactics such as interrupting the interrupter by diverting the conversation back to the initial speaker (e.g. “I’d like to hear the end of what Amanda has to say”) can be a good way to ensure everyone in the room gets a fair chance to speak. Being aware of the biases that permeate the workplace – whether intentionally or not – has also helped me become more conscious of my own actions and a constant reminder to check all biases at the door.

Dealing with unconscious bias is a topic close to our hearts, not just personally, but also because it’s relevant to the work we do at MullenLowe salt.

Throughout the years, we’ve helped our clients be more inclusive. We transformed Unilever’s #unstereotype commitment into internal engagement across 90 countries with an interactive education campaign addressing unconscious bias. We’re also proud to be working with Unilever Dove Men+Care and Promundo on the newly launched Paternity Leave Corporate Task Force which explores the power of paternity leave to help shift the dial and drive gender equality.

Internally, we’re committed to treating all employees and applicants equally and are proud to recruit people from all walks of life. As well as believing that this is simply the right thing to do, we know from experience that being part of a diverse team is the best way to challenge ideas, get more creative and bring a wider range of experiences into our strategic thinking.

Challenging workplace stereotypes can be difficult as unconscious biases exist in all of us. The best way to interrupt biases is to be aware they exist, remain completely objective throughout the process, and work with a colleague to keep yourself accountable. The next time you catch yourself interrupting a junior, questioning how a mother manages work-life balance, or wondering why your female co-worker isn’t making the coffee…just stop for a moment, recognise and acknowledge the bias and resolve to correct it in the future.