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Jan Hills

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Even feminists show bias against female leaders


Consider this and notice the images in your mind’s eye.

The visit to my doctor from earlier that morning was still on my mind when I found myself slamming the brakes of my car to avoid a collision. A driver was pulling out onto the roundabout just in front of me. Still shaking I carried on to drop off my screaming child with the nanny. It was a stressful morning and it had barely started.

Now let’s examine those pictures in your mind’s eye

Was the doctor you imagined male? Was the bad driver female? And what of the nanny and the narrator? Females too? If so, you have just experienced unconscious gender bias. Whether you are male or female chances are these are the images you saw.

When asked questions like this our mind goes to stereotypes and even in 2017 when we think about certain roles we automatically associate them with a male or female stereotype. This is implicit bias and even Google search suffers from it!  A search for ‘doctor’ images brings up 75% male pictures even though  women make up just over half of GPs in the UK.

Unconscious, or implicit, bias happens outside of our control and awareness.

It’s automatic and reflects the associations we acquire as we grow up in our family and culture. Daniel Kahnmen called this System 1 and System 2. Bias happens in system 1. We make mental shortcuts before engaging our slower rational brain.

Often when you are making decisions your quick-thinking System 1 jumps to conclusions or takes shortcuts that your rational thinking doesn’t question. The pace of work and general value based on being fast and busy means we go with the System 1 decisions without taking time to check with System 2. That’s what keeps gender bias in place.

Whilst these fast System 1 decisions can be very helpful they are a problem when the associations which formed them are out of date with the modern world. Bias is part of the way our brain works and just knowing that and being aware of it won’t change it.

The other reason why it is hard to overcome bias is that we like to be right.

Being right feels good! It activates the brain’s reward circuitry. Even if the task is boring and there is no monetary reward just the feeling of doing the task correctly creates activation of the ventral striatum the brain region linked to feelings of reward.

And the pleasure of being right occurs when we are right and when we believe we are right.

We overlook biases because to acknowledge them would reduce the pleasure of being right or believing we are.

We don’t want to feel wrong because that feels bad. It results in feelings of pain and distress in the brain and activates areas associated with negative emotions such as the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula, regions that are part of the brain’s ‘pain system.’

When we are wrong or make errors (bias decisions) it generates feelings of anger and frustration which activates the dorsal anterior cingulate. Feeling good when we are right and pain when we are wrong means we are motivated to move on and not dig too deep into decisions. To seek reward and avoid pain.

None of us like to think we are biased, but we all are, even the most liberal-minded men and women probably saw a male doctor when reading the passage above. A study by Cecilia Mo found substantial levels of bias among both women and men and even people who identify as feminists still have a slight tendency — on average — to associate men with leadership

Regardless of our consciously-held values, implicit biases can creep into our thinking and decision-making. Biases work against our own identities, sincerely held beliefs, or even our careers

Many UK companies are providing training in decision bias and unconscious bias generally and it is reported 20% of large US companies provide unconscious bias training. But this alone will not make a difference.

Gender bias, as with any other bias, largely happens at an unconscious level.

Training individuals can raise awareness but will not overcome bias. This is mainly because what is happening is unconscious but also because individuals are generally poor at being aware of their own thoughts and tend to underestimate their impact on others.

Many organisations try to put checks and balances in place to help avoid the impact of bias but there is one simple way we could all make a major step forward and that is to slow down and give ourselves time to reflect on decisions before they are actioned.

Recent research by Jay Van Beven and Daniel A. Yudkin found that when participants were making decisions quickly or when they had to be thinking about several things at once (high cognitive load like what is experienced at work) bias was positive for their own group. When people took time to slow down and reflect, bias was not present.

There is evidence that when people are able to notice and overcome bias, the regions associated with inhibition, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex ( VLPFC ), which Matt Lieberman – a leading social neuroscientist at UCLA – has termed the brain’s ‘braking system,’ are active.

When people are able to apply their mental brake they take a more objective view or check their assumptions and unconscious bias can be mitigated.

This need to slow down is echoed by a comment from one of our Gender in the workplace survey participants. “Give it the space, air-time and budget it deserves, recognising that an organisation that works to achieve gender equality will be a high-performing one.”

If you would like to receive a free copy of Brain-savvy Wo+men our book on gender bias and career when it is published, please comment on this article with your experience of managing unconscious bias or how you will apply these ideas to do so in your organisation.

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Jan Hills


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