How unconscious gender bias affects all women across the workplace

Gender bias group discussion

Tiwonge Chipeta is a Diversity and Inclusion consultant for EW Group, who has worked across all sectors in four continents in building rapport with diverse cultures.

For many people, suggesting that they have an unconscious bias might sound like a personal criticism, but the reality is far more complex. Unconscious gender bias can exist at every level of an organization, not just at the office level, or in middle management. This ‘multi-level’ discrimination hurts organizations by denying women a voice in key decision-making processes.

Research published in the European Journal of Finance has shown that professional financial advisors with millionaire clients consider female investors to be less knowledgeable about investments than men and to have less control over their investment portfolios. What’s really surprising, is that this was true regardless of the gender of the advisor!

This astonishing bias against high-wealth individuals by members of their own gender demonstrates one of the surprising truths about unconscious gender bias – that we all have it whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s a natural human trait, often encouraged by the world around us, and unfortunately, one which contributes significantly to workplace gender inequality.

People are naturally biased. Even when you intend to be completely fair, your brain has a hard time remaining impartial. Cognitive biases are the mind’s way of making associations between two concepts automatically. These helpful mental shortcuts allow us to process information rapidly and prevent the brain from being overwhelmed by information. We instinctively place people into categories using criteria like:

  • skin color
  • weight
  • age
  • gender
  • accent
  • level of education
  • sexuality
  • socio economic status

This categorization saves our brain time when absorbing and processing information, thereby allowing us to use our mental resources for other tasks. According to recent research, unconscious biases are extensions of our ‘predictive brains’ attempting to find patterns in often arbitrary groups of people – even when those patterns don’t exist or are based on stereotypes.

Unfortunately, this process can affect our behavior in undesirable ways, and prevent us from acting in our own best interests. Categorizing people can lead us to make assumptions about them that might not be true, and even alienate colleagues unintentionally. Even if we don’t consciously believe in stereotypes, our brain has a natural tendency to rely on them. For example, research shows that those we think are most qualified for a position often aren’t – we just like them personally more than other candidates!

There has been a great deal of diversity research that shows minoritized groups can even have biases against their own group. For example, this article from York University in Science Daily shows that minoritized children often develop a pro-white racial bias in early childhood. Similarly, many women can often display internalized misogynistic behavior, often learned from male colleagues or male-dominated workplaces. Given that unconscious bias is so deeply rooted in society, it’s unsurprising that female advisors showed bias against their female clients.

The costs of unconscious gender bias

Unconscious gender bias can result in serious issues with recruitment, as the best potential candidates are often unfairly ignored. Even worse, unconscious gender biases can actually cost organizations billions of dollars through low staff retention, reputational damage, and a failure to attract diverse candidates. This can mean low female representation at a managerial level – despite significant evidence showing that higher female board membership makes for a more profitable organization overall.

Western society is littered with negative associations around money and women, despite the fact that 67% of all UK household buying decisions are made or influenced by women, and 46% of the UK’s millionaires are female. The bias shown against the high-earning women featured in the study shows that even power and success can’t protect you from unequal treatment. The fact that even high-net-worth individuals can experience gender inequality shows how pervasive it is at all levels of society.

Stereotypes and Representation

Similarly, pregnant women see a high rate of workplace attrition, with many leaving even prestigious middle-upper management roles due to societal pressure and stigmas. Even worse, many expectant women have reported being denied promotions or bonuses as a result – with employers believing them to be ‘less committed’ due to pregnancy.

Even physical attributes, usually those associated with women, we often unconsciously link to being less good with money, such as wearing make-up, painted nails, high heels, or having a softer tone of voice. It’s probable that these attributes helped to bias the financial advisors against their own clients.

Despite the huge gains in female representation over recent years, unreasonable biases, such as that women are more ‘emotional’ than their male counterparts, often mean they are excluded from decision-making roles across organizations. These biases don’t just exist for women starting out in any industry – as we’ve seen, they affect women on every rung of the corporate ladder.

It’s useful to adopt an intersectional approach when examining unconscious gender bias – are women of different identities – including women with disabilities, women of color, and/or LGBT+ women – discriminated against more? Are these additional marginalized identities compounding what is already a chasm of gender inequality?

How can we combat unconscious gender bias?

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to resist unconscious gender bias. When EW Group trains managers and leaders on how to challenge their biases in the workplace, the first step is to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and that we all have preconceptions about people which we cannot control on our own.

When you ask most people to justify a decision or choice they made, they will have an explanation. But it’s often not the whole truth – we are trained to rationalize decisions that have actually been made by our subconscious without any logical input. To overcome the unconscious gender bias that’s built into our brains, we need to question our beliefs and decisions, even when they ‘feel’ right.

Bias is different for all of us but is often completely at odds with our conscious beliefs. I doubt many of those advisors were getting out of bed in the morning planning to discriminate against their female clients – but the results of the study prove that they did. The only effective way to override unconscious gender bias is to continually practice questioning the assumptions you are making about others based on how they look, who they are and how they present themselves.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to combating unconscious gender bias, which is why EW Group takes pride in designing customized courses for every organization. Whether with mindfulness anti-bias training, or even an all-organization training session, we’ll find the solution that works best for you.

Find out more about our experimental, actor-based unconscious bias training and workshops here, or more about how our organizational approach to unconscious bias here.

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