Lifestyle04 March 2019

Understanding unconscious bias

Lauren Jauncey
Lauren Jauncey
Founder and Director of Frankly Diversity

A step towards achieving #BalanceForBetter this International Women’s Day. 

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on where we’re at in terms of gender equality and what we can each do to help drive positive change. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BalanceForBetter depicting that gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.

There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way – it wasn’t that long ago that women were required to quit work once they got married or became pregnant. Today, more women than men are graduating from university and we’re seeing increased representation of women in leadership roles and on boards. Organisations are realising that investing in gender equality and diversity is morally the right thing to do and that it makes good business sense. There are a fast-growing number of studies1 showing that organisations that have gender diversity across all levels of leadership are outperforming those that don’t.

But the truth is we still have a long way to go, especially when we look at the dollars. Consider these statistics for 2017-18 published on the Workplace Gender Equality Agency website:

  • The full-time average weekly ordinary earnings for women are 14.1% less than for men (ABS 2019, Average Weekly Earnings).
  • The median undergraduate starting salaries for women are 4.8% less than for men. This gap widens to 14.6% for postgraduate (coursework) graduates (QILT, 2018).
  • Average super balances for women at retirement (aged 60-64) are 42% lower than those for men (Clare, R, 2017).

Many organisations are implementing policies and processes to improve gender equality. For example, in late 2018, Hydro Tasmania announced they will start making super payments for employees on unpaid parental leave in addition to 12 weeks of paid parental leave offered to primary causes. Given it’s usually women who take time away from the workplace to care for young children, this initiative will have a major positive impact on their super balance. Tasplan Super also recognises that women are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to super and offers resources and advice to support women to achieve a better financial future. We’re also seeing more stringent requirements that require organisations to regularly report on their gender pay gap.

Although all these initiatives are important and positive, they don’t directly address one of the main barriers to achieving gender balance - unconscious bias. Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we’re unaware of, that happens outside of our control. It’s a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. For example, many of us hold an unconscious bias that men are the bread-winners and women are the care-givers. Without realising, these biases influence our perceptions and our decisions. For example, we may assume that a woman with young children won’t want to travel for work projects but that a man with young children will. Or, we may consider it more acceptable for a woman to work part-time than for a man to work part-time. We may make these assumptions without understanding the unique circumstances of the individual, which may be damaging.

The first step to addressing unconscious bias is to admit we are biased. All of us are. The best leaders identify their biases and openly address them when they emerge. Such leaders will also work hard to create a safe culture where team members are empowered to call out each other’s biases in a respectful manner. Although it’s impossible to identify and understand all of our biases, the Harvard Implicit Association Test is a useful tool in measuring attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.

If we continue to challenge and improve the policies and processes of our workplaces, as well as take a good look in the mirror to identify and address our personal gender biases, we will take a significant step towards achieving #BalanceForBetter.

1 Delivering through diversity, January 2018 report Accessed 28 February 2019

This article was written by Lauren Jauncey, Founder and Director of Frankly Diversity. Lauren is an experienced HR professional and diversity and inclusion expert. Lauren works with leaders and organisations to create more inclusive cultures and ultimately improve business performance.


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