The hidden costs of unconscious bias
Despite the increased corporate focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the state of female leadership today is still found wanting, with female-to-male leadership in the Asia Pacific region in 2021 remaining slightly under 28 percent.
Perhaps it’s time for us to dig deeper and tackle a hidden yet difficult barrier to address — unconscious biases.
It’s human nature for us to gravitate toward people like us. But sometimes, this instinct, known as affinity bias, can be harmful. An Asia Pacific study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), reported that when asked if male managers were less likely to select women than men, and if male managers were less likely to promote women than men, more women agreed than men, with a 29 percent difference for each question.
How we define leadership also matters. The same CCL report found that while both women and men agreed that ambition was critical for leadership, women were “unsure of how ambitious to be or appear.” According to the study researchers, this could be due to how women associated ambition with egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends, unlike men, who associated it with positive attributes.
On the flip side, men are also pressured by conventional gender roles. Not usually seen as caregivers by society, fathers may not be provided adequate paternal leave, face external pressure against, or feel hesitant about, taking childcare leave.
In the Philippines, a new bill passed in 2019 stated that mothers can transfer seven days of their maternity leave to fathers, entitling fathers to a total of two weeks paid leave. However, research shows that traditional gender norms entrenched in society, coupled with religious views, may hinder uptake of paternity leave.
This has many implications — men cannot enjoy fatherhood, and their female partners have to compensate by taking up more caregiving responsibilities.
Besides facing biases externally, women may internalize these feelings of inadequacy, leading to self-doubt and limiting beliefs. They may be discouraged from pursuing their professional goals, and even cause them to downshift in their careers. Eleven percent of women surveyed in the region said they would reject challenging leadership opportunities, compared to 2 percent of male respondents.
These behaviors are so heavily ingrained and often go undetected, that we may not recognize that we are perpetuating these biases. The question then becomes: how can we identify and effectively tackle something so innate?
First, companies should provide unconscious bias training at all levels of the organization, with employees setting goals to correct these beliefs. Continued training sessions go a long way in strengthening inclusive culture.
Second, buck conventional trends and redefine what leadership means. I highly recommend growth mindset training, which encourages employees to continue growing and improving their skills.
Third, provide initiatives that support women leadership. 3M’s Women’s Leadership Forum develops leaders at all levels to accelerate the inclusion and advancement of women globally.
Fourth, help your male employees better understand the true gaps in achieving gender equity, and how they can be better advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
At 3M, we focus on REAL Allyship, which stands for Reflect, Empathize, Act, and Learn. We encourage employees to reflect on their experiences, perspectives, and innate assumptions, how these assumptions affect others, and how they came about. We also started a male allyship program, Men as Advocates, where everyone is invited to challenge gender stereotypes and work toward gender-neutral mindsets and behaviors.
Finally, redesign talent acquisition processes to better engage candidates from underrepresented groups. In the Philippines, 3M empowers youth in STEM by sponsoring various initiatives to encourage more women and young girls to join the science field.
Gender inequity is a complex and layered challenge. Only when we peel back the layers of gender stereotypes and tackle unconscious biases that hold women back can we kick-start real change from the inside out.
Jim Falteisek is senior vice president of 3M Asia Corporate Affairs.
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