Tackling unconscious bias and encouraging diversity in the workplace

Could you introduce yourselves and what you do?
I’m Jardena and I believe in creating a world where people love their jobs. Part of that equation is opening up the workplace to accept both feminine and masculine behaviours. It’s hard to love your job when you can’t bring your whole self to work.

I’m Angela, and like Jardena, I believe we are at our best when we are the most authentic-self, which means “if I am a different person at the office than I am at home with family and friends” then I am acting in a life-long movie, either at home or at work; how sustainable is that?! We came together to create this workshop as participants in the CTI Leadership Program. It really resonated with people, it seems very needed right now.

“At current rates of progress it may take another 217 years to close the economic gender gap globally”(World Economic Forum, ‘Closing the Gender Gap, 2018), so what can be done to change this and speed up the opportunity for gender parity?
The biggest driver to closing the gender gap, is the fact that companies with more women in senior leadership are markedly more profitable than those without. The 217 years figure is based on current trends, but disruptions rarely follow trendlines. The ‘year of the woman’ is a disruption in itself, and we believe that it will happen faster, and in ways, that a predictive model can’t track.

In the early 1990s, there was a push to get women into leadership positions, then we took our foot off the gas. It was a task and the box was checked, a very masculine approach to change! Now we need to close the loop and keep it going, like a continuous improvement cycle.

We’re currently in a situation where attitudes towards gender parity can be deeply ingrained within the organisation (especially large ones), can we counter this in a simple way, or will we have a long, complicated process to go through to begin shifting mindsets?
The approach in prior years has been to make women more like men, and when they eventually fail, it’s seen as proof that women can’t cut it. That hasn’t been working. About 20% of women have crossover male characteristics that allow them to succeed in masculine structures, and those match the numbers we see in today’s world. When this 20% succeeds it supports the patriarchal approach, “See! 20% can do it, why can’t all women adapt?!”. Our approach is to expand the scope of acceptable behaviours and structures to include masculine and feminine, creating a place where everyone has an opportunity to be successful.

In answer to your question, it’s both a simple and a long process. There are many ways that masculinity is embedded in business and we keep uncovering new places where femininity is excluded. We have created a definition of leadership that is idealized in the masculine, traits, like being goal-focused, command and control, linear thinking and win-lose.

Gloria Steinem encourages us to consider linking instead of ranking. It is a very masculine thing to use rank and hierarchy, and it’s the go-to structure in corporations. But what if we also included linking, connecting people laterally, sharing instead of competing…?

What are organisations missing out on by not maximizing the talents of both genders?
When organizations only include the quintessential masculine characteristics, they miss out on the talents brought by the archetypal feminine traits, for example: creativity, relationship building, intuition, broad and horizontal thinking, which are all hallmarks of the feminine.

There is evidence that women who burn out and leave the corporate workforce and go on to create wildly successful companies. This suggests that women who can’t operate in a ‘man’s world’, can succeed when you remove the confines of the patriarchy.

Also note, we are not talking only about women here. There are plenty of men who would be more effective if they didn’t have to suppress their femininity at work.

How can organisations begin to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace?
Unconscious bias is best tackled through awareness and openness. Our workshops help both men and women uncover their own biases in a safe space. People are surprised and disoriented at first when they learn their own biases.

It’s important to understand that unconscious bias implies that there’s no intent. Barbara Annis coined the phrase “enlightened denial”, which refers to people that are so enlightened that they are blind to real differences and biases that exist. It’s diversity through blanket sameness, instead of shedding a light and celebrating the real differences. Bringing in the wholeness of the differences instead of the sameness of diversity.

A number of organisations are putting quotas in place for gender equality and general diversity and inclusion at senior levels, but do these quotas actually work?
Quotas are a leading indicator that you’re moving in the right direction, but they are not the outcome. The outcome is that companies and employees benefit from gender wholeness. The question is “when you fill your leadership team with women, what do you plan to do when they get there?” My fear is that companies simply fill a quota and without structural and cultural changes, these women will fail, feeding the belief that women can’t ‘cut it’ at a senior level. Also, notice that quotas are a masculine approach to a problem! It’s transactive but not holistic.

As with any program that promotes diversity, there’s a risk of backlash. The first time a woman is chosen for promotion over a better-qualified male, we’re going to have problems, a new type of bias will emerge where women are promoted just because they are women.

Is this movement for equality at work about more than women?
Absolutely. We believe that masculine and feminine gender inclusion opens doors for other diversity conversations, including those related to gender, race and nationality. Gender is the easiest starting place because women make up the largest minority.

Barbara Annis and John Gray talk about this in their book “Work with Me”. It also opens the door for healthier masculinity. We have idolized masculinity so much that it’s become toxic. Men are suffering from this as much as women are.

What are organisations doing to change attitudes to shared parental leave - as, at the moment, this could be the most tangible way to increase gender parity initially?
This is a great place to start changing policy. We don’t have specific advice on this, but we’re pleased to see that companies are recognizing that both parents are important for the healthy development of a baby.

This is as much about people as it is women, so what can organisations do to help people bring their ‘real selves’ to work?
We look at it as a spectrum of acceptable ‘work behaviours’ and we want to expand that spectrum. Part of the unconscious bias is that the characteristics we associate with a successful business person, are actually typically deemed as male characteristics, for example, we revere someone who is focused and goal oriented, and doesn’t back down in the face of conflicting data. On the other hand, when someone raises questions not directly related to the task at hand or voices intuition unsupported by data, it doesn’t seem ‘professional.’ “Unprofessional” can be a word to unknowingly label feminine or non-mainstream characteristics. Behaviours which are totally acceptable in a social or academic setting are frowned upon in business.

Training people in workshops like our Gender Wholeness Course, where we create awareness of unconscious bias and then follow up with alternatives, is a great first step. With cultural changes, organizations need an outside perspective to expose blind spots. This is where continued organizational coaching can really make it stick.

What are your recommendations for ensuring a future where gender categorisation isn’t an issue? for organizations that are gender whole?
In addition to educating people on unconscious bias, we recommend closely looking at company structures and adapting male structures to be more inclusive. For example, women tend to get promoted more in companies that base promotions on results, versus those that promote based on subjective assessments and relationships, because men tend to promote men.

Adapting organizational structures to become more inclusive of both masculine and feminine qualities. This is an era of talent, you want to make sure you are attracting talent because of talent, and not because of biases.

Diversity strengthens the team, and adds resilience. Look at talent acquisition as a whole team and not just as individuals. A homogenous team may have extreme strength in one area but do not always have the resilience to flex strengths in different areas. So, while they might show great results for the immediate task, in the face of a changing world the team will not succeed.

Picture an ideal gender whole organization. Ask yourself:

■ What cultural elements are not inclusive of women?

■ What systems and structures might not seem masculine but yet aren’t inclusive of human diversity?

■ What do you need in order to make it sustainable?



This interview is exclusive to The Business Transformation Network.