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Improve Your Business By Fighting Unconscious Bias

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Regardless of where you stand on our Parliament's recent decision to make the lyrics of our national anthem more gender neutral, equality and inclusivity are again being widely discussed by Canadians.

In a corporate setting, it's surprising that gender parity forecasts continue to be so dismal when more studies are finding that diverse companies outperform businesses that aren't as inclusive. In B.C. (where I live), achieving gender parity at the current rate of change will take another 75 years according to a report by the Minerva Foundation (a Vancouver-based social enterprise that helps women reach their leadership potential). And this gap is greater for Aboriginal women.

At the Face of Leadership conference put on by the Minerva Foundation last June, the organization released its annual B.C. Scorecard, which found that among B.C.'s 50 largest organizations, only 38% have two or more women on their executive team. The same scorecard found that while 50% of these companies have no women on their board (or disclosed no information on its composition)--there were also no women of Aboriginal descent on boards or working as senior managers.

So why is this the case? And what does it have to do with changing a couple gender-specific words in the national anthem? The answer has to do with a term called 'unconscious or implicit bias.'

Our brains are wired for implicit bias. Each day, our brains receive millions of bits of information to process, and over time our minds have created shortcuts through associations and groupings to process the information faster. This is a natural thing that occurs outside of our awareness. It also dates back to when humans needed to quickly decide whether something was 'like us' and therefore friend or foe, or if there was danger nearby.

Implicit bias can be in complete contradiction of a person's beliefs and values. Therefore, our actions are influenced by our intended and unintended thoughts.

At the Minerva conference, a speaker from Project Implicit (a non-profit organization and group of researchers who study implicit social cognition authored the book The Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People), named Dr. Carlee Beth Hawkins, asked participants to complete an Implicit Association Test. This involved showing participants' words and asking them to group the words in the 'men' or 'women' category. The tests demonstrate that when two things are associated in our mind, people complete the test faster. Through these tests, Project Implicit's research (published in a 2007 paper called Pervasiveness and Correlates of Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes) has shown that, on average, both men and women have a strong stereotype to associate the words 'women' with 'family' and men with the word 'career', with women skewing slightly higher than men on the stereotype. Even I was guilty of this. I am a young, female, visible minority who works as a senior leader in Canada (and I very much care about my career). And yet when I took this test I associated the word career with men?

Associations come from history, media and culture. Even if we do not believe them to be true, implicit bias enters our consciousness from a young age and manifests unconsciously through actions and behavior. Unconscious bias towards gender, race, religion and ability levels (among others) has the power to negatively affect people at work and in our communities. It can reveal itself as discrimination and inequality or silently erode ones self-esteem.

So what can corporate leaders in particular do? Encouraging a more inclusive workplace creates room for a more diverse talent pool and leadership that has the ability to make better decisions and problem solve more effectively through varied experiences. Here are three practical strategies to fight unconscious bias in the workplace:

1) Before creating strategies, have an honest conversation about unconscious bias and commit to countering it. This has to come from the top of an organization as making this a priority sets the tone for all employees. As a leader, be prepared to listen, and to individually reflect on what the underlying beliefs are. Unconscious bias can be embedded in the culture of a business, so consider examining data in a meaningful way to spot differences in pay and who is promoted.

2) Consider establishing clear criteria for making decisions or restructure the decision-making process. When your 'gut' feels right and you are overly confident, consider why that is. It may be unconscious or even conscious bias speaking.

3) Leaders can support diverse talent by mentoring and advocating for them. Women tend to hold themselves back until they are sure they are really qualified for a role. Mentorship and sponsorship can help unlock the potential of individuals and put them on a path to success.

Countering unconscious bias leads to more inclusion, diversity, and better outcomes for everyone. In the end, it creates healthier communities and better companies by demonstrating that we are equals through process (and yes, even nuances in language).