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Defying our Default Behaviours at Work


We recently ran a quick survey on our LinkedIn page asking women to tell us what they perceived to be the biggest obstacle for them in the workplace, and this is what the results showcased:

It thus got us thinking that while remote work may help in addressing the lack of flexibility issue to an extent, the real problem may be a lot deeper than that. We tried to understand what an unconscious bias really means and how you can identify it at the workplace. Let’s just say that lack of flexibility, equal pay and promotions are the more visible and easier to address issues as is having “physical health awareness”, whereas an Unconscious gender bias is the far more deep-rooted and often ignored “mental health awareness”.

Unconscious gender bias is defined as unintentional and automatic mental associations based on gender, stemming from traditions, norms, values, culture and/or experience. These automatic associations feed into the decision-making process, resulting in a quick assessment of an individual with a heavy bias of gender and gender stereotypes. Let’s start with examples outside of the workplace where remarks such as

“She is too bold for a girl”. “She won’t be interested in the game” “Oh! she’s going to take forever to park”

Some of these remarks are meant to be "innocent" or “funny” but reflect stereotypes that have been ingrained in our minds since we were very young and reinforced time and again. The most troubling outcome is that young girls in South Asian societies start falling prey to these biases themselves and most of them don’t pursue a sport or passion due to either feeling out of place or not having the infrastructure/ team of girls to push and motivate them. Women often find it hard to be assertive and voice their difference of opinion in domestic situations or formal roles because they are expected to be agreeable and supportive. It’s not a stretch to imagine such systemic and inherent biases extend at the workplace and have a significant impact in increasing the gender gap.

With respect to unconscious gender biases in the workplace, there are many patterns which indicate such a bias. Here are the ones that came up most from our research as well as in our interviews:

  • Constant Need to Prove Oneself or Prove-It-Again Bias: Popular opinion is that women constantly feel the need to prove themselves and their worth at every stage. Our inputs suggest that this comes partly from their inherent need and possible insecurity due to poor cultural conditioning over the years and partly as the system continues to keep demanding such outcomes.

It is often heard that men are judged based on their potential, while women are judged on recent performance and have to strive harder for the same level of recognition.
  • Maternity-Please-Leave or Maternal Wall Bias: Closely related to the Hiring Bias, Motherhood penalty is the most severe bias affecting a large percentage of working women. While India has opted for a more accommodative maternity leave policy, we haven’t even come close to dropping stigma and hiring bias around marriage and motherhood. Companies, especially SMEs in India, refrain from hiring newly married women or promoting mothers because of the inherent belief that their personal life or childcare will take priority over work while they will be forced to pay for long periods of mandatory maternity leaves.

  • The bias starts reflecting right from the hiring process when women are asked about their family and responsibilities and is reinforced when men are recognised as “committed to work” on taking limited paternity leave/ not seeking flexible work arrangements.

  • Based on a study by workplace diversity expert, Avtar Group, ~70% of Indian women on a sabbatical upskill themselves to make up for the evolution of technology while they are away, however, 69% anticipate a pay cut on re-entry.

One tends to wonder if a more impactful solution would be a decent period of mandatory paternity leave (which could be claimed after/ along with their partner’s maternity leave). This can result in similar evaluation of candidates at the time of hiring and set reasonable expectations at home to undo years of poor conditioning.

  • Tightrope Bias: Women in the corporate world are often treading between being supportive vs voicing their opinions. It is like walking a tightrope and staying within the thin range of accepted behaviour by not “arguing too much” or being “over the top” when seeking credit or trying to lead. While women are trying to be assertive and adopt certain “masculine ways” to be successful, they also feel the need to satisfy the expectation of being friendly & accommodative.

  • Tug of War: This bias can fuel conflicts among the exiting women in organisations. Women often accept the pre-existing conditions instead of trying to change them and it results in a fight for the “woman’s spot”.

Women sometimes end-up judging personal traits and decisions of their female colleagues.

  • Coined in 1973 and covered in several studies, the “Queen Bee Syndrome” maybe seen in women who have achieved leadership in male-dominated industries and results in treating women subordinates more critically.

  • Performance Review Bias: Performance reviews are most vulnerable to several kinds of biases (beyond just a gender bias) and thus having The a structure in place to ensure objectivity is crucial for organisations. However, such objective evaluation is often found to have been compromised in case of female employees evaluation process to climb up the ladder has been criticised of being masculine in nature with a focus on traits that can be considered masculine. It thus leads to women being less likely to fare well given the criteria isn’t tailored strictly to the job.

Based on a recent PwC study, only 12% of the women are satisfied with the quality and frequency of the feedback they receive.Indra Nooyi, ex-CEO of Pepsico, has acknowledged that her toughest challenge at work was to overcome not being treated equally by male colleagues and having to “claw her way up”.

Based on a McKinsey survey, women are 20% less likely than men to get feedback to improve their performance - Women often receive critical instead of constructive feedback – words such as ‘bossy, aggressive, abrasive, strident, emotional, irrational’ were included in their reviews. Out of these, only ‘aggressive’ was used occasionally for men.

  • Positional Bias: This bias limits women to more supportive roles and titles of receptionists or secretaries. It is a deep issue keeping women from more demanding and impactful roles and is even reflected in the way job descriptions are crafted. It may also be keeping men from the positions they could have interest in.

The stereotype is very rampant and results in talented women not getting deserving opportunities and generally making young women less ambitious. It can also hold back men from applying for positions that they may genuinely be interested in due the roles being tagged as ‘creative’ or ‘supportive’.

Such implicit behaviours and typecasting of women hardwired into our system is making the glass ceiling in the corporate world even more durable.

According to Indra Nooyi, ex-CEO of Pepsico, her toughest challenge at work was to overcome not being treated fairly by her male colleagues and having to “claw her way up”.

While measures have been taken to mitigate some of the more apparent biases, unconscious ones are the bigger obstacles – these are so implicit in our actions that despite decent intentions (in several cases) it is holding women from their full potential. Organisations have to work to devise methods to identify and call out these biases and we have to introspect and assess our actions to make the workplace truly inclusive. Some of the steps we can take to address these biases include

  • Mindset Change to Create Awareness via Trainings: This is the most commonly used mechanism to counter biases not only against women but also people of colour. These can help in calling out preconceived stereotypes to change unfair behaviours that we don’t often recognise. Companies are also using past records and data for identifying gender inequalities in their own organisations and using the outcomes to identify and eliminate the causes.

  • Changes Blind Recruitment and Performance Evaluation: From the language used in job postings, to stereotypes while shortlisting and discriminatory hiring practices when it comes to married women and mothers, all steps in the hiring process need to be evaluated to hire the right candidate. In the performance evaluation process, self-interrogation and questioning can help in mitigating traditional biases along with a 360-degree feedback structure.

Forbes had reported that word selection such as “supportive,” “collaborative,” and “committed” appealed more to female applicants, while words like “competitive” and “dominate” peaked the interest of male applicants.

  • Transparency and accountability in compensation: In order to retain valuable employees, organisations should frequently review the compensation packages offered to men & women and the pay range offered at the time of hiring inexperienced employees should be a starting point to keep things at par.

Be it sports champions, artists or employees in the corporate world, the battle for pay equity is being fought in every field.

Other measures include setting up network of female employees including leaders who can mentor them, providing leadership training to women, eliminating physical barriers, 360 feedback.

In order to be effective, these actions need to be customised and applied to different organisations and geographies based on the contexts as there is no-one-fits-all solution. And the responsibility is not just on men, but women too who have internalised a lot of these assumptions and barriers. A strong collaborative effort led by women leaders and role models will groom the younger generation to navigate workplace politics the hardest obstacles.

Let’s get conscious about this unconscious bias!

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