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International Women’s Day: Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

In the theme of International Women’s Day I recently read a blog on how orchestras in the US often conducted blind auditions where the players not only performed behind a screen but a carpet was laid on the stage so that the sound of the footsteps would not give away the gender of the musician by the type of footwear they used. This was all to avoid the unconscious gender bias that is prevalent throughout our society. At first instance, I thought this to be a wonderful initiative – how great is it that organisations go to such a length to avoid unconscious bias?

I then got to thinking of how the unconscious bias plays out in all aspects of society, but particularly within the workplace and the job market. I recalled how an outraged friend of mine once claimed that she would only give her children male dominant or unisex names after she read a study on the likelihood of making it through to the second round of a job application with a female name. In the risk of rehashing the words of many other articles, you are statistically more likely to be successful in the job market if you are a male. This makes me question whether gender bias is just an issue of our perception of competence.

As disheartening as it is, gender bias reaches far and wide – even impacting how we interpret words spoken by female voices and male voices. The same word spoken by a man and a woman will provoke different thoughts. This varying interpretation extends past the specific word to all of the acoustic aspects of the word (such as tone and pitch). For instance, the word ‘academy’ spoken by a male would be associated with the concept of ‘school’, whereas the same word spoken by a female elicits the idea of ‘award’. So, yes, in many ways it is great that organisations (such as many orchestras in the US) go to such lengths as to overcome gender bias, yet in many ways, gender bias is an issue of our perception of competence.

The solution is not to wait until social norms change through the changing of our unconscious thinking (as at this rate, that would take centuries) but rather to take practical, conscious decisions now. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, explains the concept that overcoming all gender issues should be approached in two ways – the fundamental and the systematic. Systematically, organisations need to evaluate whether their organisational structure, workforce plan and hiring processes encourage the kind of gender diversity that is fitting for their organisational culture. Systematic redesign takes time, resources and energy. Approaching and overcoming the difficult and confronting issues of unconscious bias is not easy and there is never any one solution.

For International Women’s Day 2017, consider how you can actively take steps to overcome your unconscious biases. What could you influence in your own workplace to remove the impact of unconscious biased?

Dubner, Stephen J. 2016. “What are Gender Barriers are Made of?” Podcast audio. Access 01 March 2016.

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