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The 5 Key Drivers Of Unconscious Bias

In a recent podcast, the American feminist legal scholar and Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings School Law - Joan C. Williams - summarised the findings of her 10-year research, highlighting the 5 main patterns driving #bias in the organisational workplace:

1. Prove it again This bias concerns expecting certain groups to ‘prove it again’ before being given opportunities, whereas other groups get a ‘free pass. An example would be comparing interview callbacks, where white men with more ’masculine’ hobbies - such as polo and golf were automatically put on the shortlist for a callback, compared to white men with ‘nurturing’ hobbies - such as counselling and mentoring - who didn’t make the list

2. Walking the Tightrope This bias applied to #womeninleadership needing to ‘walk the tightrope’ of balancing authority without showing aggression - whilst men in leadership just need to demonstrate authoritarian traits. Dealing with the opinion that women cannot be both competent and likeable, Ms Williams has found that qualities of self-confidence and vision in a man, are perceived as arrogance and self-promotion in a woman.

3. Bias fuelling bias in groups With bias existing against a particular group - such as women in leadership - when there is only one position available, the pool of female candidates will become super-competitive and thereby fuel some of the understood biases even more, in order to succeed.

4. Maternal Wall This bais reflects assumptions that mothers aren’t as committed as non-mothers and aren’t as competent (think ‘pregnancy brain’). Mothers have to prove themselves over again when they return to work, even if they enjoyed unbiased support prior to their motherhood status. Mothers run the risk of being perceived a ‘bad mothers’ if they excel through commitment and with high levels of competency - because they are perceived as putting the needs of their careers before the needs of their children.

5. Racial stereotyping The research shows that South-East Asians are seen a ‘naturally technical’, but lacking leadership skills, and seen as too emotional, versus white males who are celebrated for showing their ‘passion for business’. People of Colour in leadership positions were often subject to isolation and disrespect, whilst first-generation immigrants or members of the LGBTQ community frequently encountered bias

A lot to unpack there, though I can certainly relate to ‘walking the tightrope’ and the ‘maternal wall’.

What evidence do you have of unconscious bias - either that you have witnessed, or experienced personally?


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