During interviews I conducted as part of my study into the barriers, or perceived barriers, to women’s progression into the executive ranks in the Australian Public Sector, one very senior male executive paused before declaring that ‘family commitments’ were a definite barrier.
Remarkably, before his declaration, he muttered out loud, ‘There are lots of women in the executive ranks here with kids. I have one woman in my team with 5 kids, I have women peers with children, one’s even a single mother, and they seem to progress and manage just fine… but I can’t believe it’s not a barrier’.
It didn’t matter that he saw no evidence that family commitments were a barrier to women’s progression, he was persuaded by his belief that it must be a barrier. In other words he discounted the evidence and the facts because his unconscious bias was stronger.
This is further proof (as if we needed it!) that it is not enough to demonstrate how good or capable we are: people will see what they think they should see and hear what is consistent with their unconsciously held beliefs.
This places women in an extraordinary bind: It’s not enough to demonstrate how good or capable we are – if someone is unable to believe it, they won’t see it.
It is however possible to help others become aware of their blind spots:
First, recognise that bias is not personal, it’s not even real, it just is.
Secondly, research has demonstrated that confronting others with their biases is the most effective way to assist them notice it, and may influence their behaviour. So the next step is to confront the bias.
That means, when you notice someone act in a way that contradicts their declared belief or intention, speak up!
A great question to ask is ‘how does that fit with what you just said?’ Then listen without judgement while they attempt to explain it. The contradiction might not be immediately apparent to them as they speak out loud, but then say ‘I wonder if you hold some sort of unconscious bias around that, and how useful it is?’ This will give them cause to self-reflect, and provide them with the opportunity to modify their behaviour.
Seems we have a lot of work to do…