Tackling Implicit Bias Against Women in the Workplace

Why We Need to Move Beyond Superficial Solutions

As a society, we like to believe that we have made great strides in achieving gender equality in the workplace. From the days when women were only allowed to hold low-paying jobs and were denied access to education, we have come a long way. However, the reality is that implicit bias against women still exists in many workplaces, hindering their professional growth and limiting their opportunities for success.

While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies have become more common in recent years, they often only scratch the surface of bias and discrimination issues. The challenge lies in the fact that implicit bias is deeply ingrained in our culture and is often invisible to those who perpetuate it. This is why simply having policies in place is not enough. To truly address implicit bias, we must go beyond superficial solutions and delve deeper into the underlying causes of the problem.

What is implicit bias?

One of the biggest obstacles facing women in the workplace is implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes and beliefs that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions, and decisions towards certain groups of people. These biases are often based on stereotypes that we have been exposed to throughout our lives through the media, our peers, and our upbringing.

For example, the stereotype that women are emotional or less capable of leadership positions is a common bias that is held by many people, even if they do not consciously believe it. Implicit bias is a problem that affects women at all levels of the organisation, from entry-level positions to the C-suite.

Although people may hold consciously rational opinions in one part of their mind, they can still be unconsciously influenced by cultural stereotypes. Despite their desire to be fair and equitable, many employers may only hire individuals who fit their preconceived notion of a leader. According to some researchers, implicit bias “is like a habit”, and while habits can be broken, simply implementing written policies may not be enough to do so.

The cost of implicit bias

The cost of implicit bias is significant. It’s all too common to see talented women pushed out of the workplace or held back from career advancement because of it. It also creates a hostile work environment that can lead to high turnover rates and low morale among employees.

The economic cost of gender bias is also significant. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute revealed that achieving a “full-potential” scenario where women participate in the economy at the same rate as men could potentially add up to $28 trillion (26%) to the annual global GDP by 2025 compared to current trends.

Additionally, a “best-in-region” scenario, in which all countries match the rate of improvement of the top-performing country in their region, could result in an increase of up to $12 trillion to annual global GDP by 2025. This amount is twice the expected growth contributed by female workers under a business-as-usual scenario.

The superficial nature of implicit bias training

Many businesses have attempted to address these issues by implementing implicit bias training programs. These programs typically aim to increase awareness of implicit biases and provide strategies for reducing their impact on decision-making. While this is a step in the right direction, these programs have several limitations.

One limitation of implicit bias training is that it can be too superficial as some programs only use surface-level methods like showing images of diverse individuals and asking participants to identify bias. This approach can help people recognise their biases, but it doesn’t address the deeper attitudes and beliefs that fuel those biases. Moreover, such exercises may feel like a mere formality instead of a genuine effort to address implicit bias.

During an interview with Knowable Magazine, psychologist Anthony Greenwald expressed his strong scepticism towards implicit bias training. His scepticism stems from the fact that the methods being used in this type of training have not been scientifically tested and validated to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Moreover, many organisations are using these methods without any means of assessing whether the training is achieving the desired results. Greenwald argues that much of the implicit bias training being offered is merely a form of window dressing, intended to create the appearance of concern and action without actually achieving anything substantive. In fact, he contends that this type of training can be counterproductive if it does not actually produce any meaningful change.

Over the course of a decade, Greenwald has observed a lack of data reporting on the efficacy of implicit bias training. He suggests that the logical conclusion to draw from this absence of evidence is that the training is not producing any meaningful results. If it were, he reasons, we would have heard about it by now.

DEI policies alone cannot address underlying professional cultures

Jennifer Rubin Grandis, a prominent surgeon, scientist, and distinguished professor at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted qualitative research on gender in academic medicine. Her findings suggest that powerful gender stereotypes are still at play, which help explain the reason why women face barriers in advancing to leadership positions.

Grandis interviewed many men who considered themselves advocates for women in their field and highlighted their support. However, their actions and language revealed that unconscious assumptions still exert a strong influence. According to her, it is possible that nobody has ever asked them to consider why they hold certain beliefs, such as why they think women should bear the primary responsibility for childcare, why they tend to interrupt and talk over women, or why they find assertive women unsettling. Until discussions about these issues occur, DEI policies will not lead to a gender-diverse workforce.

Moreover, the constant pressure of discriminatory attitudes discourages women from being recognised for their contributions or advancing in their careers. The current emphasis on DEI without addressing the underlying professional cultures is harmful. And it’s not surprising that women frequently depart their fields or abandon their research, leading to a harmful brain drain.

Beyond window dressing – here’s what we can do to create real change

To truly tackle implicit bias against women in the workplace, it is imperative that we move beyond surface-level solutions and embrace a more holistic perspective that involves the voices and experiences of women and underrepresented groups.

Too often, we are left out of the conversation, with decisions being made by those who are not directly affected by bias. By involving women and underrepresented groups in the process, companies can ensure that their solutions are informed by our experiences and needs.

Additionally, we need to hold ourselves accountable for making meaningful changes and regularly assessing our progress. As psychologist Greenwald suggests, collecting data to document disparities resulting from bias can help us achieve our goals.

By setting clear objectives, tracking our progress, and openly acknowledging both successes and failures, we can create lasting change that benefits everyone.