power your advice

Hello CEOs — Goodbye Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias is – according to Monash University, and my own LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends – REAL. Both men and women are guilty, including me. If this makes you squirm, it’s probably worth reading on.

To quote a Monash University academic:

“If you feel uncomfortable reading this, you are experiencing what it feels like to be confronted with your own biases. Don’t run away – embrace them and commit to keeping them in check.”

In the interests of this post, and learning about my own biases, I did something a little rash recently. I posted a question on Facebook and LinkedIn about unconscious bias asking if it was real. And I took the Harvard University Implicit Bias Test (kind of like unconscious bias from Project Implicit) myself. Both exercises hurt.

I am biased. Both consciously and unconsciously. Some of my bias is gender bias. While I think I’m pretty liberal in my views, and inclusive, various results within the Harvard bias test showed some very interesting and unlovely blind spots. But having searched around in my subconscious thanks to Harvard I realised that one of the biases I had can’t be measured by this test – and that was, or maybe is, a negative view of what some would call more traditionally male ways of working. More on that in another post, but it’s fair to say I’ve unfairly judged men and skewed my ideas of merit in certain roles to a stereotype that some would see as more traditionally female. Yes, I’ve been unfairly judged as a female, but I suspect I’ve done the same to other women as well.

So given I’m living in a glass house on this one, I’m not throwing stones.

But I am shining a light on blind spots – my own, and leadership behaviour in general, particularly given men occupy 82.9% of CEO roles in Australia. It’s not necessarily true that male leaders are more biased, consciously or not, but it is most certainly true that when leaders conform to a social “type”, unless they guard carefully against doing so, they tend to see merit (and to hire) people who are similar to themselves.

If we had 82% female CEOs we might have a different kind of issue. But we don’t. So this discussion, for now, is about what it means to be female and working in a male-led industry.

Back to the question on Facebook – now that received instant, long, and civil answers. It also prompted private messages from women who didn’t want to answer in public (even in my friend zone). The complete lack of answers on LinkedIn (the work zone) was also revealing. It seems unconscious bias is still one of those taboo topics - too hot to handle in public. Answering the question would have meant professional jeopardy for the women who responded in a public work forum – just as it represents a risk to my own professional relationships and our brand as I write this. My male colleagues point out they avoid entering public and private discussions about gender for the same reason – they don’t want to be branded sexist. It’s professionally risky.

But should it be? Surely we’re grown up enough to have calm public conversations about tricky topics? The Australian Dream’s portrayal of Adam Goodes’s journey suggests we’re not yet ready enough for a civil conversation about race in this country either.

As one client reasonably said to me about unconscious bias: “We seem to have lost our ability to have a civilised debate about some important things without getting all screechy and heated.”

On the other hand “grace in disagreement” is something most of us say we want. Perhaps we need to cultivate that ability more in the national commentary arena. A civil conversation about gender is one worth having.  

Full disclosure: I find it confronting to assess my own biases about gender, race, sexuality, weight, postcode and footwear. You can check yours here or learn about how implicit bias shapes your thinking – and what you can do about it - from a Monash academic here.

My father, for many years, quoted his father (Tom) on the measure of a man being somewhat evident in the quality of his boot or shoe polishing. Sound familiar? Or terrible? It may depend on your family’s background – and biases. Tom worked for the Reserve Bank, was a church-going Catholic-schooled father of four, primary breadwinner, ex-RAAF officer and one-time captain of QLD’s AFL team. He was in most ways a thoroughly decent person, and a product of his time and place in society.

If you are asking yourself how this manifests in your organisation – or reassuring yourself that it doesn’t - here’s a list of things you (and I) might do that show our unconscious gender bias. To be clear, what follows is not just my opinion. It’s the experience of diverse women employed full time in financial services, occupying mid to senior level roles.

These are – by definition – behaviours some men are not aware of. That’s what makes reading them or having them put in front of us so confronting.

It’s often our most unconscious behaviours that cause issues for others. Surely then, it’s worth all of us heeding feedback in order to be a better human for those around you.

The problem

Here are ten examples of unconscious bias given to me by women in super, funds management and general management.

1. Being judged based on appearance, more so than male colleagues

2. Being spoken over more by male colleagues than female ones (yes, it’s still happening)

3. Having their contribution or comments repeated by a male colleague or boss without that person acknowledging the source

4. Having their feedback ignored - but heeded when replayed by a male

5. Related to points 2, 3 & 4, not being “heard” or having their less forceful delivery style mistaken for less valuable commentary or less strong views

6. Having something explained (like the P&L, operations or general management), that the speaker wouldn’t explain to a male colleague, without checking her understanding before launching in

7. Having assumptions made about work-life balance and desire to take on or dodge certain work based on gender, marital or parental status

8. Being tasked with lower level work that’s needed but not asked of male colleagues at the same or similar level (such as setting up a conference call or meeting, getting the coffee or follow up actions that are not directly related to the woman’s job role or meeting)

9. Asking male but not female direct reports or colleagues for feedback

10. Allowing colleagues to denigrate females or more ‘typically female’ attributes (the corporate equivalent of “throw like a girl” and “you don’t look like a surgeon” @drnikkistamp )

Just writing all this feels like heresy – and a million miles away from most of my experiences at work. Most of my interactions, and those of the women I talk to, are good. Respectful, appropriate and constructive.  

But the examples below remain as reminders ‘we’re not there yet’. These daily lived experiences of unwitting unfairness exist in today’s financial services workplaces – still.

My own recent experience is similar to the examples below. A male colleague and I were meeting a CEO and CMO for the first time to take a complicated and sensitive brief. It’s not an unusual situation for us. But what was very unusual was that the CEO consistently sought eye contact with, and directed his responses to my questions to, my male colleague. I was leading the meeting, asked most of the questions, and as the MD of my firm, was the most senior person on our side.

The following have also actually happened:

Scene one - 2019: Executives at a listed company gather in Sydney around a table about to start the leadership team meeting. The CEO turns to the CMO, the only woman in the meeting, and asks her to set up the conference call dial-in for their offsite colleagues. Notionally the people around the table are peers of equal standing, but the CMO is the only woman and gets regularly asked to undertake this admin - which doesn’t feel or look like coincidence.

Scene two - 2019: A female executive with more than a decade’s experience in investor-facing roles, and a dual major business degree, is tasked with admin tasks for a project team she’s part of in an investor-relations capacity. Her male colleagues of equal or less seniority are not.

Scene three - 2019: A leader in her 50s with a background in blue chip companies leads a team of some 80 people of varying seniority. Her team do sensitive high stakes work. She consistently experiences male colleagues speaking  over her, and explaining things to her that are, to her, obvious.

Can all these examples – and the many others I hear – have other explanations? I’m not sure they do, given the repeated occurrences and the lack of logical other explanations.

On the flip side

There are many things we see leaders do that make financial services workplaces better for everyone. They include the following.

Set a tone that makes everyone feel included

The standard you accept as a leader or colleague is the standard everyone else rises to…. or sinks to. Calling out a director or a fellow CEO for denigrating a woman in a way that they wouldn’t a man is standard-setting. Making sure you’re thoughtful in your choice of who to get the coffee or set up the dial-in (the most junior person, not the only woman) sends a strong signal about what matters to you. As is going home on time to have dinner with your family – or a life. So is apologising if you feel you’ve mis-stepped personally, thus making it okay for others to do the same.

Take the case of one of my good male friends who’s now a CEO. He and I met as colleagues in a listed business. He put his arm around me at work in a way that felt incredibly inappropriate. I reacted in a way that left no doubt this wasn’t okay. He later – to his immense credit – apologised in private. We both learned something, we became mates, and I value his continued openness to feedback today.

Listen actively, and with your eyes as well as your ears

So many of the things on the bias list from women in financial services relate to not being heard – being spoken over, having their contribution diminished or claimed by others, being patronised or ‘mansplained’ to.

Listening is more than passively hearing – it’s active. It requires observation of body language or things not fully said, clarification or questioning. It also requires drawing out people who are less likely to volunteer (male or female). In meetings it requires active chairing, not constant speaking. It requires quieter leadership, sometimes more from behind than in front. That’s a mighty tall order for many of us and yet it’s what the women AND men around us want more of.

Ask for feedback that earns you respect – and knowledge

I get it. You’re the CEO. Honestly, honesty is even harder to come by in your job than you think it is. Trust me on that.

But one amazing thing many of you – both men and women - do is be truly open to feedback. You ask for it, you express genuine openness and you thank people for giving it to you (even when it stings). When you make it safe for the people around you to be frank – particularly the women or others who typically do not speak out – a few things happen.

First, your direct reports respect you more. Some also become your advocates. Secondly, you gather data. While it’s not all accurate or useful, much is - it’s data that helps you understand your own leadership blind spots, manage risk and spot cultural issues in the business. It also helps you frame the vision and strategy, and communicate it in ways that resonate, engage and empower your people to take action. Finally, you get smarter and make better decisions: equipped with soft evidence that helps you better understand and act on the hard data.

Mentoring

“Thank you” wasn’t a phrase we used much in my first jobs. Those were roles where I worked alongside impressive and passionate feminists to create change for women, specifically to improve the representation and lived experience of women at work. I was pretty angry at men in senior roles.

Until they mentored me (smart!). Then I saw how almost all of those men I judged were more patient and smarter than I thought, and kinder than I deserved. Through a series of mentors, I, and many women I know, have reframed our thinking, and lifted the lid on the ceiling of our careers. That’s worth celebrating and encouraging.

Hire based on track record of inclusive leadership

Hiring men and women who know what inclusivity is and have a track record of working well with female colleagues is a worthwhile legacy if you’re the CEO. So is giving recruiters clear instructions to bring diverse and qualified candidates and making sure you personally ask women about their ambitions for future roles. It’s really not so hard to reference check any manager’s track record with former direct reports – simply ask the right questions of women who’ve worked with them, or folk who come from groups typically underrepresented in their sector.

The question I asked myself when joining the finance sector was how bad could or would it be? Being sexually harassed in public by a senior colleague wasn’t great. Nor was having him threaten my bonus if the issues I raised “came between us”. Equally problematic was having the male leaders of the listed company I worked in try to sweep all that under the carpet.

So one of the very best things our CEO clients do is to only hire and promote direct reports who have zero tolerance for discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying etc, can articulate their position on these matters, and (ideally) have lived experience of dealing well with them. There are many deeply problematic behaviours I won’t touch on here that do still occur. Some of them end up as issues in our crisis management practice. The worst are covered by the law as well as dealt with by good management. Tenured leaders have dealt with these matters and fall on the right side of the law as well as natural justice.

Finally, why have International Women’s Day?

A more diverse – and representative - finance sector is one better equipped to do well by those we serve. Boston Consulting Group and others have found more gender balanced leadership teams lead to better innovation and better financial performance.

One day I hope we won’t need International Women’s Day. For now, however, there’s work to do.

While neither you nor I created the challenges we face at work today, it’s our job, as custodians of a better future, to be part of the solution.

Related: Do Your Employees Reflect Your Market? Why It Matters