Unconscious bias - the invisible challenge perpetuating the lack of diversity in the workplace
Human Resource Management

Unconscious bias - the invisible challenge perpetuating the lack of diversity in the workplace

This is a contributed article by Wrike GM EMEA and VP of Sales Patricia DuChene


"Commitment to diversity." It's a nice mantra often found in organizations' "About Us" literature on how they value contributions from a mixed workforce. But how often do we see real concrete practices put in place to achieve it? Sadly, despite our efforts and the good intentions of current hiring practices, we are still woefully behind in closing the significant diversity gap, particularly between genders.

According to the Women in the Workplace study, women remain underrepresented at every level in corporate America, despite earning more college degrees than men for thirty years and counting. Nearly 50 percent of men (versus a third of women) think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman. Also, at the first critical step up to manager, women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers. This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the representation of women: If entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the SVP and C-suite levels would more than double.

Lack of gender diversity is not just an ethical issue; it's just plain bad for business. A McKinsey report released earlier this year revealed that companies in the top 25 percent for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability than those with the least diverse workforces.

So while the benefits are clear, what's causing the lag in progress? Quite simply, we have blinders on to the diversity issue; an unconscious bias that shapes decisions, specifically in the hiring process. Renowned author and speaker on gender and business, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox noted: "The corporate world is led by men confident that they are identifying talent objectively and effectively. The reality is that decision making about talent is rife with unconscious assumptions and personal biases."

I've had to tackle this unconscious bias in my own career. After joining Wrike in 2013, in its Silicon Valley headquarters, I relocated to Dublin in 2015 to launch the company's EMEA headquarters, starting with two employees and quickly scaling to a team of more than 60. Here's a few things I've learned in the confronting unconscious bias:


You have to make the unconscious conscious

The first step to solving the diversity issue, or any issue, is awareness. Being a woman in tech, a woman in sales, and now a woman leading an office, I was fortunate in that I was acutely aware of my industry's lack of diversity and therefore it was on the forefront of my mind when building the team. All leadership must be onboard and aware of the importance of diversity and the importance of recognizing unconscious bias.


Be mindful of similarities to peers

A lot of companies do peer interviews and many have things like the "airport test" to determine soft skills and cultural fit. Basically, do you get along with this person enough that you can imagine hanging out with them during an airport layover? This approach could be problematic as it leads to peer interviewers giving higher scores to candidates they prefer to hang out with, which in turn leads to hires that are similar to their own hiring managers.


At Wrike, we like to use one of our core values, Collaborate, when evaluating talent. We want peer interviewers to answer "Can you collaborate with this person? How are their communication skills? Do they value teamwork? Will your team be stronger with them?" This removes the likelihood of an interviewer passing or not passing a candidate based on similarities.


Mandate a gender minimum

Have at least one male and one female candidate make it to the final round for every role. We've mandated this in our company and it encourages the recruitment team to expand their pool of candidates and look "outside the box" to ensure a good mix of applicants.


Answering ‘why' and ‘how' is crucial

After interviews, come together as a group and review thoughts and feedback on the candidates. HR's role during this meeting is to question why and how - Why do you think that about the candidate? How did you come to this conclusion? Answering these questions will help you identify the root source of your feedback. Maybe it was just an unconscious opinion, and if so, these questions will identify that.


Build a culture

Diversity training should be incorporated into every job role right at the onset of onboarding. All new hires should end Day One with the understanding that Diversity is not about meeting a quota. In an increasingly globalized world, a diverse workplace is a huge advantage, allowing an organization to be more flexible and responsive to the diversity of its clients. Celebrate diversity by hosting a wide variety of holidays and events where people can showcase their culture.


Companies that can overcome unconscious bias reap the benefits of both employee retention and revenue growth. Creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive space where employees can thrive is a tremendous challenge, but in the end, the struggle will be worthwhile.


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