The dangers of unconscious bias
03 March 2020

Full-time MBA alumnus, Roderic Van Hoof, discusses how the impact of unconscious bias can statistically limit career progression for women, even when men and women are equally represented in the work place.

Disclaimer – this is a topic which a blog doesn’t begin to do justice to. It shares a tiny amount of what I learnt regarding gender diversity throughout my MBA. If interested in more, I highly recommend “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez.

As an Aeronautical Engineer, my impression has been that diversity is being addressed in UK Engineering. The teams I worked in were always multi-national, typically reflected across seniority levels. This enriched the conversation with different ways of thinking, and different cultural perspectives. Talking and thinking about how products and manufacturing methods would work in many markets has led to solid product design and successful growth of British engineering on the international stage.

The elephant in the room

However, the elephant in the room in engineering was always diversity across the sexes, with women very much under-represented in engineering and manufacturing. The percentage of women I could see in the workforce typically reflected the “pool” (i.e. the ratio I observed at university, being 10%). As someone against quota-enforced employment (a separate topic), I felt that so long as the workforce gender balance reflected the graduate pool, then by focusing on growing the pool of female engineers by motivating young women to select engineering as a career pathway, this would improve. As such for my part I had focused my efforts on supporting the encouragement of female students to pursue a career in Engineering.

I have come to realise through my MBA that his viewpoint was naïve.

One of the great aspects of the Warwick Full-time MBA is the high diversity, both in terms of nationalities, and an improving gender balance (not quite at 50% yet, but getting there!). As such I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in teams which were both ethnically and gender diverse for the first time in my career.

Diversifying perspective

Whilst of course the variety of industry and cultural backgrounds enhanced the richness of debate, I was surprised to what extent having a high (compared to what I was used to in my professional field) ratio of female MBAs added to my awareness of how the business world is perceived differently between men and women, and how this impacts the world we live in.

Don’t get me wrong – having grown up with two sisters, and my closest friends being women, I already realised that unfortunately, the world is different (and dare I say tougher) for women than for men. For example, life choices such as if a woman chooses to have or not to have a child, and whether or not they choose to work, or whether they take a career break – are much harder on women. There is no winning, there will always be harsh critics of women’s choices for which men don’t face the same scrutiny.

However, I hadn’t appreciated to what extent this spread to the professional environment. I learnt from my female MBA colleagues on how many of the “same” professional experiences, such as interviews, meetings, presentations and networking are burdened by issues of gender which I (and so far as I am aware, my male colleagues to date) have not experienced.

The fallout of unconscious bias

One example (and there are many, but a blog is very limited by words!), I learnt that a female presenter will generally be judged more harshly for the same presentation given by a male colleague of the same experience due to unconscious bias… (that same bias which makes many of us picture a man if told “surgeon”). Further, if she chooses to combat this by wearing a suit – she will be seen to want to emulate a man and be judged negatively on a subconscious level for it.

“So what?”, you might ask?

Well – going back to UK engineering, this means that even when we get to the point that men and women are equally represented, this unconscious bias, which not all – but many of us have, (programmed in by society as we grow up) will statistically limit career progression for female engineers of equal standing. Besides fairness and equality, does this matter?

Yes! Products engineered (or signed off at a senior level) by men risk not having a women’s insight… and risks by accidental default be designed for men. A benign example being my Amazon Alexa at home; it has no problem picking up my voice and doing what I want it to do. But if my wife asks it to do something – most of the time it struggles. She has to speak in a lower tone (emulating a man) for it to listen to her most of the time. Deliberately designed? No – but had more women been involved in the design process...

A much more serious example: Women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash – simply because tests are designed on the male form. More female involvement would likely have prevented such a statistic.

I want fallout from unconscious bias to be sorted by the time my two-year-old daughter enters the workforce. Current trends won’t let that happen; we need to make it happen. As future leaders, it's our job to not wait for progress on gender equality in the workplace, but to make it happen. To be aware we likely have an unconscious male-centric bias, and bring that into our decision making, regardless of our roles. 

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