Are you biased against women at work? Probably, and it's usually unconscious

Look around any PR agency and the chances are you'll see more women than men because PR is an industry that is inclusive of women at every level - except the very top.

It takes a conscious effort to combat unconscious bias, writes Suzie Barrett
It takes a conscious effort to combat unconscious bias, writes Suzie Barrett

Two thirds of the PR workforce is female, but in the boardroom it’s the opposite. According to the latest GWPR survey (October 2017), 78 per cent of global agency CEOs are male, with 62 per cent of the seats at the boardroom table taken by men.

Could the reason behind this be the unconscious bias, not only of men, but also of women themselves?

Unconscious bias affects every moment of our lives. Unconsciously, we tend to naturally favour people who think like us, sound like us, look like us, and have a similar background to us – this includes gender, age race, sexuality, height, weight, social class, political views and more.

We all like to think we are open-minded and objective, but research has shown that the beliefs and values gained from family, culture and a lifetime of experiences heavily influence how we view and evaluate both each other and ourselves.

Our aspirations too tend to reflect ‘the current norm’ and with fewer women in higher roles, women’s unconscious beliefs about career progression could be holding them back.

It’s no coincidence that 28 per cent of men in PR think that they will reach leadership roles – compared to just 18 per cent of women.

Bias comes in many forms, from doubting your strengths and abilities, to thinking that you need to take on a 'masculine' persona to succeed.

My father once said to me that the most successful people are tall – suggesting that I (and my siblings) would 'do well' because of our tallness.

It seems bizarre that someone’s height can give him or her an early advantage (and perhaps might explain Donald Trump’s success at 6’3) but if you look into it a bit more – it’s true.

On average, the taller you are the more you’re likely to earn. Tall people are the beneficiaries of unconscious biases – 'you look like a leader therefore you are'.

The problem is that our irrational behaviours are systematic and predictable – and this means we all make the same types of mistakes again and again.

It can impact all parts of the workplace, from career development, diversity, recruitment and even creativity.

How can we make the best decisions, when we are not even aware of the choices we’ve made to get there?

Of course, we can’t just click our fingers and eliminate these biases, but being aware of them and slowing down our quick judgements will affect the opportunities we seek, create better workplaces, better agencies and better selves.

And for those women who undervalue their abilities and don’t think they can reach the top – you probably can – have the courage to believe in yourself and go for it.

And for those that do believe, thank you. We need more of you.

Suzie Barrett is head of talent at Third City

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