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Think different: moving past bias toward gender equity

Priya Jain | 03 May 2016 | Comments

We’ve all heard the success story of how Steve Jobs took over Apple in late 1990s, transforming the near-bankrupt firm into one of most admired and valuable companies over the course of 10 years.

His strategy, which was chronicled over numerous award-winning adverts, was to honor those who think different, signaling a new way of approaching problems and doing business at Apple. The idea, at its core, is elegantly simple—to solve seemingly insurmountable problems, you must get beyond conventional ways of thinking. You must think differently.

So how do you take this seemingly simple, now cliché, think different and turn it into a meaningful trigger to actually spur change in your organization? I’d propose one of the easiest ways to do this is to permeate your organization with individuals who are different. In other words, incorporating diversity is one of the most effective ways of creating an organization that truly thinks differently. Through diversity, new viewpoints and perspectives are instantly gleaned; potential roadblocks are seen miles sooner and examined from a greater variety of viewpoints; and solutions become more inclusive.

"I’d propose one of the easiest ways to spur your organization to think different
is to permeate it with individuals who ARE different."

And gender diversity is arguably the most readily available to incorporate. Women make up half the population and potential workforce, and they come packing impressive qualifications. In the U.S., women represent 52 percent of the nations PhDs, 60 percent of master’s degrees, 60 percent of college graduates,(1) and more than 70 percent of high school valedictorians in 2012.(2)

The business case is also compelling with numerous independent studies showing how gender diversity benefits the bottom line. Why Diversity Matters, a 2015 study by McKinsey & Company, concluded that gender diverse companies outperform others financially by 15 percent. And ethnically diverse ones do so by as much as 35 percent. However, disparity remains for women and leadership positions where women hold only 4 percent (3) of the Fortune 500 CEO top-spots.

Since it makes business sense with so much economic potential, why is it so hard to achieve gender parity? There are numerous articles that discuss in detail all the causes of gender disparity, ranging from women’s personal attitudes to workplace policies. The complex issue seems to be deeply engrained in our social, cultural, institutional, and individual mindsets. I believe a key contributor that slows our progress is unconscious bias—the invisible force lurking beneath our consciousness that makes snap judgments without our awareness—which is heavily influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.

What can we do to address these unconscious biases or blind spots and create environments that are more supportive? First, we must start with ourselves, acknowledging that our biases exist and make a personal commitment to address the problem. I believe there are three complementary factors that will help us address this problem: building self-awareness, cultivating confidence, and creating organizational support systems.

Building self-awareness

Awareness plus action equals social change. If we’re going to move the needle, we first must be aware of our own biases. I was surprised to discover my own unconscious assumptions about gender, race, religion and even my attitude to women in science. Growing up in the metropolitan city of New Delhi in a family of engineers and science enthusiasts, I was naturally inclined to consider these professions as within reach of everyone irrespective of gender as long as you had an interest. Since I did not assume any gender issues for women in science and engineering, it affected the way I approached counseling middle and high school girls and junior engineers. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the barrier was not lack of interest but frequently the perception that science was too difficult and not for girls. My bias of thinking gender was not an issue resulted in an approach that was not addressing the root cause of the issue. I would encourage everyone to actively seek out and discover his or her own blind spots. And taking stock of your biases may pay off in more ways than one. In his book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely presents a range of findings that show how our unconscious biases sway us to make irrational choices at a significant financial, social and emotional cost to society and ourselves (I highly recommend listening to his TED talk). Only when you are aware of your biases, can you make a conscious and deliberate effort to override or account for them.

"Only when you are aware of your biases, can you make a conscious and
deliberate effort to override or account for them."

Building self-awareness tip: Critique yourself honestly, welcome other people’s feedback, and carefully consider your biases. Staying up-to-date on new research in this field can help you become aware of common biases you may not have considered. The Implicit Association test administered by a research group at Harvard is a convenient way to assess your unconscious associations and biases.

Cultivating confidence

Competency is the baseline for building credibility at work and in our personal activities. The challenge that many women in particular face, is knowing how much competence is enough and translating this competence into confidence in their abilities. I can relate to numerous studies that indicate that women wait to apply for opportunities until they feel 100 percent qualified,(4) have difficulty negotiating salaries commensurate to their abilities, tend to put the team before themselves, and consistently underestimate their abilities.

There have been a number of times when I watched from the sidelines because did not feel ready—only to see someone less qualified take the lead—or when I took a risk but my self-doubts lead to verbal and non-verbal cues that fulfilled my self-prophecy of “not being ready.” I had some wise mentors who noticed my hesitations and challenged me to differentiate my assumptions from reality. Like many other women, I must work deliberately and consciously to override my bias to self-doubt. But by understanding this is a personal bias, I know I need to add a fair bit of trust in my capabilities when facing these types of decisions to counteract this bias.

Cultivating confidence tip: To dissuade yourself from settling, it’s important to get clear on what you want. Develop a road map for your future that includes the roles and responsibilities you want and the skills you believe you need to develop. Carefully evaluate potential opportunities and get objective feedback on your qualifications from your trusted mentors, both men and women to truth-test your assumptions. Ask for feedback on your assignments to build your confidence, or course correct if necessary. Push yourself to pursue opportunities that are just beyond your current capabilities.

Creating organizational support systems

Emotionally savvy managers are the core of a successful diverse team. They are aware of their own biases, good at spotting them in others, and skilled in creating work environments where team members can get beyond them. They establish group norms where all team members are respected and can be themselves, know their contributions are valued, and feel safe sharing their ideas freely. They tailor mentoring and feedback to each person’s unique talents and background and above all ensure they get the training, opportunities and experiences necessary to advance at every stage of their career.

An organization’s commitment to diversity provides the foundation on which smart managers can build teams that think different. These organizations adopt systematic approaches to creating and maintaining a diverse talent pool. These organizations put in place policies and systems that can accommodate the unique needs of diverse individuals, such as adjustable paid time off for observance of cultural holidays, flexible work hours to accommodate daycare drop-offs and pick-ups. A company’s policies and actions send a clear message on whether or not they truly value diversity. Organizations can have deep-seated unconscious biases too, which must be uncovered in order to be overcome.

Creating organizational support tip: We must all do our part in creating an environment of trust that enables open discussion. No matter what level of the organization you sit at, have the courage to attempt to change it. Share ideas to address bias with your colleagues and celebrate your victories. Hold your teams and colleagues accountable if you observe bias. And most importantly, hold yourself accountable in the role you play in promoting gender equity.

As Albert Einstein stated, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I believe each one of us can do something to ensure a fair and equitable workplace that harnesses the full potential of women to create a more vibrant and profitable organization for everyone—but we need to think (and do) differently than we have in the past. It’s up to all of us to move the needle toward equality for our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, ourselves, and our organizations.