Are you aware of your unconscious biases?

Consider the following scenarios that routine occurrences for many women in the workplace. The male colleague, with whom she is equally well qualified, is selected to take the podium at a
conference, or the lead on a major new client project, or a place on the panel for an industry debate. Professionally they are equals, so why isn’t she receiving the same opportunities? It is most unlikely that any of these situations is premeditated; in fact, they probably haven’t been given a second thought. And that, being simplistic, summarises unconscious bias.
 
Unconscious bias (UB) is defined as a psychological phenomenon and indeed psychologists tell us that our unconscious biases are simply our natural people preferences. Biologically we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. This is known as ‘social categorisation’ – a process in which we quickly sort people into groups.
 
Unfortunately, because this behaviour is instinctive rather than logical, it can lead to bias and poor decision making, with a tendency to appoint people in our own image rather than to choose those who are more diverse. The result can be seen in the pale, male and stale syndrome that is all too familiar in senior management and boardrooms, particularly in property, construction and engineering.
 
As referred to earlier, the UB undercurrent also impacts visibility in the workplace. It helps explain why the route to senior managerial positions is less well travelled for women, and if you are a person of colour it is an even tougher journey. Yet we know that a diverse workforce is happier, more productive, more profitable, better for business.
 
Encouraging a diverse workforce is inextricably linked with tackling UB, so more and more businesses are training their staff at all levels, to understand UB and raise awareness of our subconscious preconceptions.
 
So what can businesses do in the short term to manage UB? It is important to be realistic so, rather than attempting fundamental change, start by recognising and managing your biases, for example in appraisals and interviews.
 
Look for the facts, be open to seeing and hearing what’s there, don’t depend on ‘rule of thumb’. Add value by working with colleagues to find ways to identify and calibrate skills, ensuring equity above difference. Implement a formalised mentoring programme, particularly for under-represented groups and consider reverse mentoring, when you might have senior individuals who are rather set in their ways (https://www.womeninproperty.org.uk/career-development/mentoring/).
 
Instead of relying on the usual suspects, give opportunities to others to present ideas, lead meetings, speak at conferences. Consider the alienating language used in some job descriptions,
particularly in the construction industry. Recognise how you’re thinking about a situation – is your decision based on rationale, or feelings?
 
Women are not looking for special treatment, nor a ‘tick box’ approach to an inclusive working environment, we just ask for a level playing field. Getting to grips with UB is a fundamental step towards achieving this.”
 
Mandy St John Davey is national chairman of Women in Property

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