Break the bias: breaking gender biases to build more equitable organizations

March 8th is Women’s Day, and this year International Women’s Day has defined ‘Breaking the bias’ as its theme. This slogan invites us to break with the biases that affect the way we think and act in a broad sense: in our communities, social groups, schools, universities and, of course, also in our workspaces. What are cognitive biases? How do they affect different genders in companies? Why does it make sense to work on them?

We understand cognitive biases to be those unconscious systematic errors that distort our way of thinking and make us err when making decisions.

As human beings, we are constantly making decisions. While we make some of those decisions consciously and rationally, most of them are made intuitively, without stopping to think about how we do it. In this second mode of deciding, our mind needs to be more efficient, it needs to spend less time and energy, and to do so it takes shortcuts. In other words, it takes advantage of mental models we already have unconsciously incorporated and decides just about automatically. For example, when driving a car or closing the door of our house, we make a lot of decisions without being aware that we are doing so.

However, those shortcuts do not always help us choose the best option. When our mental patterns are affected by cognitive biases, these influence our way of thinking and can lead us to a wrong decision.

These mental models we have incorporated include, among other things, our view of the different genres. This look tends to associate each gender with stereotypes, which we have ingrained, and biases us when making decisions, most of them automatic, that we do not register rationally.

To break these biases and develop more egalitarian workspaces, the first challenge ahead of us is to identify which ones they are and how they affect us. This way, we will be able to move them from an unconscious place, that affects automatic decisions, to a conscious place that allows us to incorporate them as one more element in our rational analysis.

Gender bias and its impact on companies

In our experience working with global companies in different parts of the world, we see that gender inequality is increasingly present on the agenda. However, the depth with which biases are identified and worked on is very different between sectors and countries, as is the existing inequality gap and the intersection with other inequalities. In any case, there are some patterns that are repeated and affect, in general terms, the same way.

It is in the processes of selection, evaluation and promotion of people, where gender biases that impact the proportion of women at each level of the organization, are most directly reflected. The way in which people are evaluated, and the characteristics by which they are judged, are often biased by mental patterns that unconsciously give greater weight to characteristics associated with a male stereotype. According to the survey: Women in the Workplace 2021, conducted by McKinsey, while at the initial levels of organizations women represent almost 50% of all employees, this number decreases as you go up the company’s levels, and does not reach 25% in management positions ( McKinsey, 2021).

This inequality also has direct impact on the gap observed in wages. According to the Global Gender Gap 2021 report of the World Economy Forum (WEF), the wage gap between men and women is approximately 37% ( WEF, 2021).

On the other hand, if we look at how people allocate their time outside the workplace, we see that women bear the greatest burden of the work that happens in the home: unpaid domestic and care work. Though this is one of the elements that varies the most between countries depending on the care coverage provided by the States, the burden suffered by women is still greater. This situation, which was also aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, often means that women have a greater work overload than their male counterparts, and this affects the way in which they are evaluated in companies.

In addition to all these biases that can be seen reflected in statistics, other biases linked to the interactions that occur between genders in the workplace are identified, which for many may be more invisible and, therefore, more difficult to bring them to a conscious plane. For example, typical behaviors are identified such as the unequal attention given to men and to women when presenting at meetings, or the greater number of interruptions suffered by women in this context. In this same sense, it is observed that women have to make a much greater effort so that their ideas are heard and, even with this greater effort, many times their ideas are not supported until they are validated by a man in the room.

Another typical example of behaviors that can go unnoticed, if we do not have the lens to identify biases, is that of men who explain different topics to women, without the latter consulting them. Sometimes, it even occurs that men explain topics on which these women are in fact, the experts. Behaviors like these often lead women to change their style of relating and to adopt characteristics associated with the male stereotype, and be able to gain access to leadership positions and be heard by their male peers.

Why work on gender bias?

The answer to this question could simply be, that the reason is to achieve a framework of greater gender equality in the workplace. This reason alone is strong enough for it to be an item on the agenda.

However, there are even more benefits. Generating diverse work teams improves the work environment, creates a space more prone to innovation and helps achieve better business results.

According to a study by Boston Consulting Group in 2017, increasing diversity in leadership teams paths the way to greater innovation and improves companies’ financial results. This analysis, carried out with more than 1700 companies, showed that Companies reporting higher-than-average diversity in their management teams, also reported innovation revenue 19 percentage points higher than companies with lower-than-average leadership diversity: 45% of total revenue vs. only 26%.

In summary, we can say the opportunity that lies ahead and its benefits are clear and, if there is a will to address it, the tools to do so are already available. The challenge we have is to identify those gender biases that affect our organization, our teams and our interactions. By identifying them, moving them to a conscious level and no longer letting them mistakenly affect our way of deciding and acting. And to escalate this challenge at the organizational level under the conviction that creating workplaces free of bias has impact on the results of companies and, above all, on the lives of the people who achieve those results.

Daniela Olstein
Manager at Tandem.

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