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Unconscious bias: the biggest block to gender equality?

Training in unconscious bias awareness can help recruiters and managers make better decisions when choosing who to employ and promote. Within the construction industry, it is fast becoming the tool for banishing prejudices and waking up to the talents of minority candidates. Ruby Kitching reports.

Making a good first impression during a job interview is generally considered vital to landing a new job. This has meant that candidates dress smartly, smile politely and make eye-contact with their prospective employer within the first few crucial seconds of meeting. While all this still stands true, some forward-thinking companies keen to employ the best candidates from a range of backgrounds are also ensuring their recruiters are adequately prepared and trained for interviews. This is so that the judgements made in those first moments of meeting a candidate are justified and unbiased. Interviewers are routinely undergoing training in unconscious bias (UB) awareness to ensure they offer positions to candidates based on business needs and more than just the “first impression”.

UB training has been developed as a result the current understanding of the psychology of decision-making which reveals that first impressions are riddled with positive and negative biases, many of which are unconscious to the employer. Unaware of their inherent biases, recruiters will routinely hire people they feel most comfortable with - for example those who share the same gender, ethnicity and educational background as them- rather than being the best person for the business.

Companies such as Bechtel, the Highways Agency and Balfour Beatty train key staff in UB so that biases which have developed quite naturally over time do not effect management and recruitment decisions and support a corporate ambition for a diverse workforce.

Strong business case

The business case for diversity lies in the fact that a company is more likely to be innovative, progressive and sustainable if it is made up of people from a range of backgrounds. Successful businesses embrace diversity and are also more gender-balanced (NCE 17 July).

 Employers organisation Inclusive Employers director Claire Williams explains that she is approached by companies who have initially identified that they want to recruit a more diverse workforce, but are struggling to do so. In the case of gender diversity, a company’s statistics could reveal that too few women engineers are recruited, too few progress or that many leave. These companies might then ask themselves, “Is this because the culture of the organisation does not support or value the contribution of women engineers? How can we address this?” UB awareness training goes some way to making a firm more appealing to more candidates and can address some of the blockers preventing women being successful in engineering.

“Unconscious bias is a term used to describe the associations that we all hold which, despite being outside our conscious awareness, can have a significant influence on our attitudes and behaviour. A typical example within the UK of where unconscious bias becomes a concern are companies who attract 40:60 (female to male) engineering graduate applicants but find they recruit 20:80. This cannot be based on merit. It is much more likely that recruiters are making unconscious judgements about people ‘fitting in’ or the ability to work shifts, for example,” explains Williams.

UB’s roots are in scientific research carried out by psychologist and 2002 Nobel Prize winner for Economics Daniel Kahneman who, in 2011 published the book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Bringing an understanding of human psychology to the business community, he describes how thinking fast, or intuitively, is often non-fact-based and can lead to poor decisions whereas thinking slow requires more effortful, fact-based analysis and is more likely to lead to much better decisions. Fast thinking relies heavily on an individual’s unconscious biases which are a collection of stored memories that are often recalled inaccurately.


“Biases arise partly because of the way our brains rapidly categorise other people for [purposes of] efficient decision making,” explains Williams. “When people interact, the amount of information available to them about each other is mentally overwhelming; we simply cannot process everything about each new person we meet. To cope with the information overload, our subconscious brains rapidly sort information about someone and places them into groups, this is called social categorisation. This enables us to make rapid judgments about new people and situations without having to process everything in great detail.

“The advantage of this categorisation is that we save time and effort when processing information about others, which allows us to pay attention to other tasks or new information. However, social categorisation also brings with it a second powerful process in the form of stereotyping and bias. This can be particularly damaging when we are rapidly judging people categorised as part of our ‘out-group’ compared with those categorised as part of our ‘in-group’”.

She adds that even well-trained and well intentioned managers and staff are capable of making decisions that simply reinforce the status quo and, “treat women looking for careers in engineering as part of the ‘out group’”.

Managers with an unconscious bias against, say, women engineers exhibit behaviour patterns which include avoiding eye contact or keeping conversations short, not asking a woman’s opinion in a discussion or overlooking their presence completely.

Sensing these traits, a competent women engineer will either not want to work with such individuals or will not be asked to join (so the company misses out) and if they do happen to join, will not achieve a deserved promotion (due to lack of communication of the woman’s achievements to the manager) or won’t stay because the culture is plain unwelcoming.

UB training

So how can UB training re-programme what is, essentially, hardwired subconsciously in our brains? Can it change prejudices and behaviour?

“[During training] We talk about bias being a normal thing. You see the light bulb moments when delegates suddenly understand why they behave in a particular way towards a particular group,” explains Williams.

“Training gives people the opportunity to reflect on the factors that may impact on their own personal judgements about other people and how this impacts on behaviour at work,” she adds. She also believes that explaining UB as a scientifically researched subject -unrelated to political correctness - aids its credibility as a concept.

At its core, recruitment and promoting talent is about identifying the best person for a role and UB training ensures managers are more likely to consider the true basis of their judgements, adapt their approach and behaviour patterns appropriately and challenge bias if they sense it in themselves or see it in their peers, adds Williams.

An entire company can also be corporately biased in favour of or against certain groups and Williams advises that management processes such as those which determine employee benefits, bonus schemes and promotion opportunities be scrutinised to ensure that it is offering the same opportunities for success to all employees.

Assessing the impact of UB training can be difficult to determine immediately, but, in time, recruitment and retention numbers, staff and client satisfaction and profit should indicate its success.

Performance reviews highlight ‘abrasive’ women and ‘aggressive’ men

A survey of 248 performance reviews from 28 different technology-related companies published in US business magazine Fortune last month revealed that the terms used to describe a male employee’s performance differed significantly to that of a female’s.

Feedback was far more critical of women’s personality than men’s. Words such as “bossy”, “abrasive” and “strident” were used to describe women negatively, whereas for men, such personality criticism was not included. In contrast, when men were described as “aggressive” it was considered a trait which was to be encouraged.

Considering only the reviews which were critical of performance, 76% of reviews for women had negative personality criticism, compared to just 2% for men.

The survey concluded that the gender of the person carrying out the review did not affect the type of words used. However, when candidates were considered for bonuses and promotion, it was considered that the unfavourable bias against women’s personality would prevent them from succeeding.


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