The Truth About Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Inequality takes many forms and manifests in numerous manners. However, what does unconscious bias do to our workplaces? As women, we deal with more in the workplace than our male counterparts, including unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. Unconscious bias happens outside of our control. It occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain making a quick judgment. Whether we realize it or not, an unconscious bias thrives in our society. Women are still discriminated against professionally, whether it is directly through compensation or indirectly through the way we are treated or spoken to. This bias worsens as we climb the ladder. Each of us maintains unconscious beliefs about various social & identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize a social world by categorizing. Unconscious bias can be more prevalent than we realize and it can also be more difficult to free workplaces of. Unconscious bias is more predominant than conscious prejudice.

Unconscious Bias in Hiring and Promotions

If left unchecked, unconscious bias can thrive in hiring, promotions, and in feedback. It is important to hire a diverse workforce to be competitive. However, an unconscious bias works against this and keeps women from being equal, successful, and economically stable. HR professionals must combat unconscious bias in hiring and it is important for employers to maintain policies that are supportive of equality. Examples of such include telecommuting options, flexible hours, and family leave. Each of these policies make for a happier, more productive workforce. It is also beneficial to work with groups who can help can get diversity into the workforce. In addition, educating your employees about implicit biases will help them to scrutinize their own behaviors and be more mindful. It is also important to define requirements for a position carefully because women will not apply unless they meet 100 percent of them. Organizations should define which requirements are mandatory and which ones are not. When advertising for a position, choose words carefully because some will work against bringing candidates in. Gender neutral environments also are important in attracting candidates. When considering an employee for a promotion, it is important not to consider external factors or those that are not related to how an employee performs their job functions. Whether this is done purposely or by an implicit assumption, it is a discriminatory behavior. Implicit bias based on the idea that an employee can perform their job properly. For example, an employer should not assume that a female employee would not be interested in a promotion solely because she is pregnant. This implicit assumption is based on the notion that women are not capable of working and having a family or that women should be limited to only one. It is ideas like these keep women back professionally and economically. They also contribute to gender inequality whether we realize it or not.

Unconscious Bias in Feedback

There is also research that states men and women are assessed differently in the workplace. Male and female managers may critique women more harshly for being aggressive. Their accomplishments are more likely to be viewed as a team effort rather than their individual one. These differences are products of an unconscious bias, which influence our workplaces. If managers expect women to be team-oriented and men to be independent, women may be pushed into supporting roles rather than the core positions that lead to executive jobs. When these stereotypes are internalized over time they can sap up some of the women’s confidence that they or their female co-workers can handle more demanding positions. Whether we realize it or not, stereotypes shape our perceptions of capability. Women are held to a higher standard within evaluations and we hold ourselves to a higher standard as well. Hidden biases such as these can cumulatively damage a woman’s career over time. This results in a decreased access to leadership positions, stretch assignments, advancement, and pay.

Combatting Gender Bias

It is important to raise awareness to combat issues such as these. They pervade within our cultural and social norms. Employers also must ensure that they employ specific criteria in hiring, promotions, and giving feedback to their employees. Employers can also take a proactive approach by learning from each other in how they conduct their performance reviews, advertise for new positions, or decide on a process for promotions. It is important to be thorough, fair, and transparent within each process. By maintaining this approach throughout the employment process, women have a better chance at achieving professional and economic success. As a society, we must continue to work together towards the common goal of achieving parity by raising awareness and challenging our norms.

How Does It Affect Our Workplaces?

Unconscious causes us to make decisions in favor of group versus another. If women face unconscious bias it is easy to see how aspects in the workplace can favor men. Studies have shown that it affects hiring decisions, salaries, and ultimately, career advantages. Women face enough challenges in the workforce and unconscious bias, ultimately, is just another source of stress and pressure.

How is unconscious bias different from blatant discrimination? Research in social psychology shows that people are able to control their unconscious biases. However, HR professionals also can help organizations uncover and combat unconscious bias and its effects in the workplace by:

  • Providing awareness training
  • Creating structures
  • Labeling the types of bias that are likely to occur.

Unconscious bias, if left unchecked, can turn to discrimination. We all have unconscious biases and by providing awareness training, employees are given the opportunity to learn more about it. It also teaches them how recognize them and how to combat them in daily decision-making. Awareness training can also create an organizational conversation about what biases exist within the company and what steps the company can take towards minimizing them. Labeling them is also important because it brings them to the forefront and the conscious level, leaders and employees will have an increased level of awareness and how it affects decision-making processes, hiring, promotions, compensation, and organizational culture. Creating structures allows for more deliberative actions and provide opportunities to point out ways for peers to point out ways bias may be seeping in.

So, what happens when organizations are not successful in preventing unconscious bias? What structures are in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace? 

Legal Protections

The pay gap affects not just women but our families and the economy as well. This adds up to lost wages, a reduction in pensions, and decreased Social Security benefits. Under the Equal Pay Act, men and women must be paid equal wages if they perform equal work. What some may or may not realize is that Equal Pay is applicable to more than just a paycheck. The Equal Pay Act also requires employers to provide their employees whose job functions require equal skill, effort, and responsibility and are performed under the comparable working conditions an equal salary, bonuses, overtime pay, stock options, profit sharing and similar packages, life insurance, holiday and vacation pay, any specific allowances or reimbursement for travel accommodations and expenses. Unequal compensation is not legal unless the employer can demonstrate that the pay differential is based upon a fair seniority, incentive system, or merit. It must be a factor other than gender.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act your employer may not discriminate against you based on your race, gender, religion, or national origin within any conditions or terms of your employment, including benefits, compensation, and hours. Title VII also prohibits pay discrimination that results from unfairly denying women promotions or other forms of discrimination that can impact pay. Both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII are enforced by the EEOC.

The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act clarifies that each paycheck providing discriminatory compensation is a basis to file a claim under Title VII irrespective of when the discrimination began. This law allows 180 days after the most recent paycheck that reflects unequal wages to file a charge with the EEOC.

Discriminatory behavior, whether it is subtle or not, is how inequality manifests. Unconscious bias is one way in which discriminatory behavior manifests and holds women back professionally and economically.

It is up to our HR professionals and workplaces to continue to combat unconscious bias by providing training, enforcing policies, and creating structures and classifications that can allow level play fields and keep unconscious bias from pervading our workplaces and organizations.

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