How can we address ‘unconscious bias’ in the workplace when we haven’t addressed ‘conscious bias’ yet?

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“Unconscious bias”. These are certainly buzz words bound to draw an enthusiastic response from progressive business leaders. Training on unconscious bias helps to raise awareness of blind spots and remove or reduce the possibility of unconsciously discriminating against those who do not match the value system we have developed throughout our lives.

Research and training in the area of unconscious bias almost always includes a focus on gender. This is great news given gender diversity challenges in Australia. Australia needs to be genuine about wanting to improve gender equality – particularly at senior management levels, which in turn improves business and financial performance, creating smarter and more effective leadership teams. These are just two of the benefits of having more women on boards and in senior management and across business as outlined in the Melbourne Business School Gender Equality Project Report from 2013. Therefore, training people to recognise unconscious bias is a positive for businesses and for individuals.

I would suggest that unconscious bias is frequently in play when hiring candidates for leadership positions. This might manifest itself if hiring a woman is seen as a risk when it comes to her ability to fully commit to a role given her family responsibilities – current or future.  This is something we are now calling out as unconscious bias.

How conscious is our unconscious bias?

I do question though if this is far more conscious than we like to admit. In my work as an HR Consultant, Executive Coach and Parental Transition Expert with Parents At Work I frequently hear from women who have been told they can’t do a role because of family commitments. Or their part-time request is not possible due to the business needs (or just because it all seems a bit too hard). Or their role has been taken away from them while they are on parental leave and they’re expected to take whatever is on offer upon return (or resign).

Dad bias

To be fair, I also hear from concerned Dads who want to provide more support at home, but know they will be seen as less committed than others. As a male – is it ok to ask for a flexible work arrangement for family reasons? Sometimes, but it’s rare. The perception remains that women will always want flexibility and men will never want it. Assumptions and decisions are made for new parents on both sides of the gender coin and biases either way are spoken about openly and consciously.

Employer bias

I recently heard from a business owner who told me that a female employee with long term tenure couldn’t be promoted as he knew she wanted to start a family soon and he didn’t want to invest his time and money in training her only to have her go off on leave. I was gob-smacked. He was consciously and clearly stating his bias against her as a woman due to the time she would need to have off work, in the instance she was able to bring a member of the next generation into the world. But in his defence, after we spent some time analysing this bias, he has changed his tune and that female is now in a promoted role. I was grateful for the opportunity to help him see through this bias and understand the detrimental effect this kind of decision would have on not only that individual, but the culture and ultimate performance of his company overall.

Our own unconcious bias

I hear stories from women with a lack of confidence and fear of failure when it comes to putting themselves up for a promotion. They worry about the perception that they won’t give enough to the role as their focus is divided between career and family. They also feel they risk sacrificing family time if they take on more responsibilities at work. Often they know they will be pitted against men who do not necessarily share the domestic workload and therefore can give more focus to their job responsibilities.

According to the 2016 Women at Work report “in both high and lower income countries, women continue to work fewer hours in paid employment, while performing the vast majority of unpaid household and care work. As a consequence, women are more likely than men to work shorter hours, whether voluntarily or against their choice (thus finding themselves in “time-related underemployment”).” You can find more on gender differences in this content and statistics rich report here.

Flexible work – is there a catch?

There is also a reality that a vast majority of jobs in the Australian marketplace are advertised as full time. It’s like it’s impossible to conceive of someone contributing something valuable in anything less than a standard full-time working capacity.  This is not measured by the ABS as they do not measure this particular statistic in Labour Force reporting, but a basic search on the leading Australian job board Seek (as I did in mid November 2016) shows 8,881 part-time roles versus 111,763 full time roles advertised – representing just 7% of available jobs. The experience I hear from working parents is that if you want a flexible work arrangement, the best way to get this is to negotiate within the role you hold at your existing employer – where you are a known entity, your performance is proven and your capability cannot be questioned. Even then, it’s not easy to negotiate. We spend a lot of time coaching individuals on this process.

It is generally believed to be extremely difficult to find a new role with a new employer at the level you have achieved in your career in a part time capacity. If you are willing to step down a notch or two, maybe your chances will improve. On the flip side, I hear from small to medium businesses that one of the best things they can offer is flexibility and they attract great talent from global corporates by simply offering flexibility.  In addition, they don’t have to offer matching salaries as the competition for flexibility is so fierce. Conscious bias against those working in a part-time capacity is alive and well.

Get real with conscious bias

So much needs to be done about conscious biases before we can realistically start to address the unconscious. Flexibility in the workplace needs to be taken seriously and applied equally between men and women. Family friendly values need to be embraced and supported.

Let’s take the lead from the Nordic countries. This Huffington Post article outlines a number of great achievements in the northern countries like Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Nordic economies work hard to make it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in more women in the workplace, shared participation in childcare, more equitable share of labour at home, and ultimately better work-life balance for both women and men. Let’s learn from the lessons of the countries that are much further along in the journey of addressing conscious bias.

Let’s start to role model flexibility, welcome and embrace working parents into corporate society, and demonstrate for the next generation how women and men equally contribute to society – both at work and at home.

By Kiri Stejko, Client Services Director, Parents At Work

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