Unconscious bias: The silent killer of workplace diversity

Unconscious bias, if left unchecked, can thrive and influence key decisions that ultimately stymie diversity, and unknowingly shape an organisation’s culture.

About the author

Vicki Ng - Head of Human Resources, Asia

Vicki Ng is the Head of Human Resources Asia at Lendlease, a leading property and infrastructure group headquartered in Australia. 

In her role, she ensures that Lendlease’s people and culture strategies and initiatives are aligned with the growth aspirations of the Asia business.

“The female leaving the office early to pick up her child must be a non-career minded mother.”

“During a meeting, a man states the very same facts that a woman just did, but more assertively and in a louder tone. He is perceived to be a more credible and dominant leader than her.”

These are two examples of unconscious biases – social stereotypes about various social and identity groups that are formed outside individuals’ conscious control.

In the workplace, unconscious bias, if left unchecked, can thrive and influence key decisions that ultimately stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts, and unknowingly shape an organisation’s culture. 

In a Scandinavian workplace, no one will bat an eyelid or think negatively of a working mother who leaves the office earlier to pick up her child. Take this scenario elsewhere in the world, and the working mother may have to face the rest of her team who perceives her to be shirking her work responsibilities and impacting the overall productivity of the team.

This example is an unfortunate gender bias, formed from mental shortcuts and social stereotypes. They can be so pervasive that we do not think twice about why we have these unconscious biases. 

Inherent prejudices

Unconscious bias is an unassuming prejudice against someone, usually unfair or stereotypical, based on visible traits and preconceived notions. We bring them into our lives including the workplace unknowingly, and it is hard to completely eradicate because everyone has inherent prejudices.

Even Singapore is not exempt from this common workplace hurdle, an example being the underrepresentation of women in the boardroom. A June 2017 study from the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) recently revealed only a 10.3 per cent participation rate for women’s share of board seats, with gender diversity remaining short of the group’s escalating targets of 20 per cent by 2020. 

Have you ever noticed similar personalities belonging to a department or a project? The deep-rooted nature of human bias affects almost all aspects of an organisation. Unconsciously, we make decisions in favour of one group or an individual and to the expense of another. 

It is a fact that unconscious biases are universal issues that are rarely spoken about due to lack of awareness. At the workplace, unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews. It affects the hiring of new talents, promotion, and talent development, which inevitably undermines an organisation’s culture and business results. At an individual level, unconscious bias impacts how people think of themselves and others as their leaders, leading to self-doubt that may hinder their career progression.  

Divisive stereotypes

Some other stereotypes include:  

  • Working mothers are less career-oriented as they need to focus on the family, and prefer not to accept overseas postings
  • Being assertive, logical and dominant are often associated with predominantly male qualities. Men with these traits are considered capable, looked upon favorably and likely to be successful. On the other hand, women with these same traits are looked upon as ‘bossy’ and unpopular.
  • The ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’, where a woman in a position of authority views or treats female colleagues or subordinates more critically
  • Extroverts are productive and successful people compared to introverts
  • Mature workers have no career ambitions 

Unconscious bias can also happen to people of colour, of nationalities, of different income, groups and of name. The trap to unconscious bias is the lack of awareness of its existence. In fact, victims of unconscious bias may not be aware or have difficulty in identifying the biases themselves.

A few of the known unconscious biases that directly impact the workplace include:

  • Affinity bias: The tendency to warm up to people like ourselves. The pitfalls include hiring the same type of personalities and skill sets.
  • Halo effect: The tendency to think everything about a person is good because you like that person. This affects promotion and workforce development.
  • Perception bias: The tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that make it impossible to make an objective judgement about members of those groups.
  • Confirmation bias: The tendency for people to seek information that confirms preexisting beliefs or assumptions. This could likely affect the relationship dynamics of employees.
  • Group think: This bias occurs when people try too hard to fit into a particular group by mimicking others. This causes them to lose part of their identities and subsequently results in the organisation losing out on creativity and innovation. 

Levelling the playing field

At Lendlease, diversity and inclusion are our key guiding principles. We are committed to providing a level playing field, giving everyone the same opportunity to succeed, such as setting gender targets at Graduate, Manager and Executive levels, introducing a range of benefits and policies including flexible ways of working, paid parental and partner leave, careers leave and other family benefits, as well as achieving pay parity by undertaking rigorous annual pay equity reviews. 

Senior leaders also must set an example by creating a workplace that facilitates open communication, through online platforms and channels for employees to confront and talk about it. Instead of avoiding the issue, leaders and employees can come together to share and endorse initiatives to address gender, race, and skills equality, or identify role models among the rank and file in the organisation.

With the changing business landscape fuelled by disruption and uncertainty, organisations stand to lose out in the talent war if unconscious bias is not addressed. Coming to terms and acknowledging the existence of unconscious bias is the first step in tackling it. 

What else can organisations do to combat partisan attitudes? Read our analysis on whether blind recruitment is an effective solution to unconscious bias

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