Why high status is no protection against unconscious bias

Why high status is no protection against unconscious bias


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. This was true regardless of the gender of the advisor. Read the full article.

This astonishing bias against high wealth individuals by members of their own gender demonstrates one of the great truths about unconscious bias. We all have it whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s a natural human trait that is created by the world around us.


Why does unconscious bias exist?


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. We instinctively place people into categories using criteria like:

  • skin colour
  • weight
  • age
  • gender
  • accent
  • level of education
  • sexuality
  • social status

This categorising saves our brain the time and effort when absorbing and processing information, thereby allowing us to use our mental resources for other tasks.

Unfortunately, the same process can also affect our behaviour in undesirable ways, as well as prevent us acting in our own best interests. Categorising people can lead us to make assumptions about them that may well not be true and treat them differently based on those biases. Even if we don’t consciously believe in stereotypes, our brain has a natural tendency to rely on them.

There has been a great deal of diversity research that shows minority groups have biases against their own group. This article from York University in Science Daily shows that minority children develop pro-white racial bias in early childhood. Given that unconscious bias is so deeply rooted in society, it’s unsurprising that female advisors showed bias against their female clients.

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 in all levels of society.

It’s quite likely that there are physical attributes, usually those associated with women, that we unconsciously link to being less good with money. For example, make up, painted nails, high heels or a softer tone of voice. It’s probable that these attributes helped to indivertibly bias the financial advisors against their own clients.


How can we combat bias?


Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to resist unconscious 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 pre-conceptions about people which we cannot control.

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 rationalise decisions that have actually been made by our subconscious without any logical input. To overcome the bias that’s built-in to our brain, 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 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. Find out more about our experimental, actor-based unconscious bias training and workshops.


Talk to the experts


EW Group helps organisations across the UK combat unconscious bias and develop inclusive leadership in their senior management teams. If you’d like to find out more about how a more diverse and inclusive workforce can benefit your organisation’s bottom line, then get in touch.

Learn how we can support you to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace

Rachael Wilson has led EW Group for almost a decade. She has designed and delivered sessions for senior leaders at Merck Pharmaceutical (Germany), adidas (Italy), Computershare (USA) and British Land Plc (UK). Rachael’s interest lies in bringing narrative and storytelling to the fore both in the design of diversity strategy and in driving inclusive behaviours. In addition to working collaboratively with clients, Rachael is responsible for the growth and development of our 50-strong consulting team who are central to all EW Group activity.

Interested in more on unconscious bias? Listen to reWorked - EW Group's company culture podcast!

How to rework unconscious bias

Want to hear more? Check out our reWorked podcast special where EW Group’s Managing Director, Rachael Wilson, breaks down what is unconscious bias, how it can affect us at work and what we can do to address it. Listen now: How to rework unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias and brand reputation

In this episode of reWorked, Jane Farrell speaks to Rachael Wilson about rise of the term ‘unconscious bias’ in public and professional discourse. Together they try to unravel the “Rubik’s Cube” of how advantage and disadvantage operate in different workplaces. Listen here.

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Unconscious Bias Training

EW Group are specialists in leading-edge unconscious bias training. We offer a range of in-person training courses, online e-learning modules and innovative actor-based workshops aimed at addressing unconscious bias in the workplace.

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Here you can find the range of open courses we offer in equality, diversity and inclusion. All these courses can be delivered in-house for your designated staff groups. Get in touch to find out more.

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