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Break The Bias - six ways for leaders to create better conditions in their workplaces

The Oxford Group

28 February 2022

Here at The Oxford Group we’re inspired by this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD ) theme of ‘break the bias’. 

Whatever our gender, however we define ourselves, we truly believe in the human, social and commercial value of creating a world where all are valued and all can bring their best to their situation. 

This year’s IWD campaign theme invites us to imagine ‘A gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated,’ and encourages us to know that ‘Together we can forge women’s equality.’  We say a resounding ‘yes’ to that vision. Evidence, as well as ethics, convinces us that individuals, organisations and societies thrive and grow better where these conditions exist.  

Any conversation around gender, equality and bias has many levels of complexity. We all experience and read situations differently according to our beliefs, conditioning, context and personal experiences. Holding a value such as ‘equality’ in principle doesn’t automatically make it easy to put that value into action when we’re working or living with other people, each having their own take on what’s good to do.  

Sometimes that complexity can get in the way. People may lose confidence or patience. Maybe they don’t know what to do in practice to break the bias. Maybe they just don’t really know how others will respond if they try. Maybe they don’t yet see the benefits. 

Here are six ways for leaders and managers to create better conditions to break the bias in their workplaces, including how to spot their own bias and what can they do about it.  

1. Seek feedback 

Do some honest self-reflection then seek honest feedback. Especially from people outside your comfort zone. What are you noticing about the way you manage / lead? What bias are you aware of feeling and how does that show itself in how you lead / manage? Invite people to call you out when you are showing bias. It can take courage for someone in your team or peer group to challenge you on your bias. Making it clear that you want that challenge. Welcome it with respect and thanks when it comes. It’s a huge part of creating the conditions for people to feel safe to speak up. Professor Megan Reitz puts it so well; leaders have a responsibility to ‘listen up’, not simply to expect their people to ‘speak up’.  

 2. Check your default questions 

Notice the questions you ask and the follow on assumptions you might automatically make. Do you ask different questions based on gender in your workplace conversations? In spite of many legislative changes that have impacted how recruitment and career conversations are handled, there is still a lot of bias in the use of gender-based questions, for example around family or caring responsibilities. Lots of gender bias still happens around career development, mobility and what ‘high potential and leadership behaviour’ looks like. Post-pandemic is an ideal moment to change that. The last two years taught us all that we can do it differently when we need to.  

3 .Challenge your default assumptions 

Notice the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear everyday terms such as ‘leadership’, ‘talent’, or ‘potential’. One of the ways that bias is maintained is through unquestioned assumptions. This can lead to confirmation bias – where we make an assumption and then instead of being truly objective, we simply see what we’re looking for – what we expect to see. For example, in retail, clothing slogans for girls and boys showing radically different assumptions (‘be kind and happy’ for girls and ‘strong warrior’ for boys) have a real impact in maintaining gender based assumptions into the future.  

4. Intention does not equal impact 

You might not intend to exclude, stereotype or discriminate, but there might be a gap between what you intend and the impact of what you say and do. Here’s where feedback is brilliant. We can all do and say things that have an unintentional impact. Rather than try to reinforce our good intentions by jumping onto the defensive, such as ‘I didn’t mean it that way, I meant it this way’, try really owning the impact – ‘I understand; that’s impacted on you like this………tell me more so I can correct my language in the future’. Even more importantly, don’t undermine others by hiding behind humour, – e.g. ‘I was joking!’ 

5. Call it out 

If you really do care about breaking the bias, one of the most practical and valuable actions you can take it is to call it out in the moment. When you hear or see gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping and say nothing, know that in those moments, your silence gives consent. Don’t consent, call it out.  

6. Recognise the stories we tell  

Finally, listen hard to the stories you tell and the stories you pick up on and amplify in your organisations (or in the wider news arena). The stories that resonate with you tell you a lot about what and who you value. Notice where you’re quick to place ‘heroes and villains’, ‘us and them’ labels and who you tend to put into those ‘other’ groups. Moving out of that habit is another way we can break the bias. Change the stories. Allow for a wider range of heroes.  

 

Preferring ‘people like us’ limits us to such a small world. We can do better.  The debate moves on through different levels of complexity and sophistication. Bias is still out there. We can break it. Let’s do it. We’ll all benefit.  

Our Realise: Women's leadership programme helps individuals and organisations to challenge systemics bias. If you want to find out more CLICK HERE.