What Lies Beneath? How to Address and Overcome Implicit Gender Bias in Your Organization

By Courtney Leyes

Recently, I read a Forbes article that related to implicit, or subconscious, bias and how that bias impacts the hiring and ultimate promotion of minorities and women. According to this article, a Harvard global online research study, which included over 200,000 participants, showed that 76% of people (men and women) are biased and have a tendency to think of men as better suited for careers and women as homemakers. Ultimately, this study was designed to demonstrate the implicit biases we possess, which impact our behavior in the workplace. The article suggests that our behavior, which is driven, in part, by these subconscious biases, affects all aspects of the employment relationship from hiring to promotions. For instance, an interviewer’s body language toward a female candidate during an interview – “such as leaning less forward, maintaining less eye contact, being slightly less expressive or standing a little further away” – can lead to an interviewee being slightly less confident, placing them in a situation that would not show their best self. Id. This example is also applicable to promotions.

And why is it important to ensure that women have access to opportunities for advancement? Notwithstanding the obvious fact that it should be every organization’s goal to increase their diversity ranks, there is now quantitative data undergirding the value of diversity. According to Forbes’ article, “companies with greater gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.” Id. Additionally, women make great leaders of organizations, according to a Harvard Business Review survey.

So, what can you do as an HR professional to help diversify your workforce and leadership ranks, knowing we possess these subconscious biases? This article will first seek to define subconscious bias and how acting on these subconscious biases could potentially expose our organizations to risk. Finally, this article will provide you with some practical tips to implement in your respective organization to help you reduce the seepage of implicit gender bias in every aspect of employment.

What is Implicit Bias?

According to The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.” These implicit biases “cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.” The Kirwan Institute further outlined some key characteristics of implicit biases. These include: (1) pervasiveness – everyone possesses them; (2) our implicit biases may not align with our own declared beliefs; and (3) we generally tend to possess implicit biases in favor of our own “ingroup” although research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our own “ingroup” (this explains why women may be implicitly biased against themselves). One example of how these biases can be played out in the workplace was provided at our own firm’s Women’s Initiative panel last month. One panelist commented on the double-standard for when an employee has to leave for child duties. When a man leaves a meeting early to pick up his children from school, he is applauded for being a “super dad.” However, when a woman leaves early, no one comments positively, and instead, the reactions tend to be negative.

What are the Potential Legal Ramifications of Implicit Bias?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and its amendments prohibit employers from basing employment decisions on an individual’s gender (or other protected characteristics). Additionally, Tennessee and other states have their own employment-discrimination statutes that mimic Title VII (some states’ laws supplement Title VII). Hiring bias charges with the EEOC are on the rise, with last year’s number being 7,359. Prominent companies have been sued for various types of hiring biases. Seemingly innocuous hiring practices such as inquiring about salary history, recruiting only college students, or placing job ads where they’re to be seen by some job seekers but not others, could lead to hiring bias or at least lead to allegations (read: charges and lawsuits).

What Can You Do as an HR Professional to Address and Overcome Implicit Bias in Your Organization?

The job ad. Let’s start at the very beginning of the employment relationship – when your potential applicant reads the ad and determines whether he/she is qualified enough for the job to apply. Notwithstanding the fact that you should cover all bases with advertising the position – not just through the online job search engines like monster.com, indeed.com, etc., but with newspapers too (to reach a more diverse group of applicants), you need to pay close attention to how you describe the position to your applicant pool. Specific language can lead to speaking to one gender over another. For instance, using language like “go-getters” and “good in high stress environments” tend to garner more male than female applicants. Also, are you getting enough diverse candidates? If you are noticing that you are only getting male applicants in response to a position, you should consider targeting additional forums that are geared towards women to help diversify your labor pool.

The application. Be careful with what you ask for in an employment application. Potential legal landmines include asking for salary history and criminal history. The latter’s potential liability is obvious given all the attention on “Ban the Box” statutes passing in various states. However, the former is not so obvious. There is a momentum regarding this issue, and some states have even passed legislation prohibiting employers from inquiring about salary history. The idea behind this prohibition is that by asking for salary history, an employer could potentially perpetuate past discriminatory pay practices. In other words, if I had been underpaid and undervalued at my previous position, then this salary will be the baseline for my next position. To avoid pay-discrimination claims in general, you may want to consider setting up a salary scale like the government does. For example, if someone has five years of experience, they are paid x amount for a particular position.

The referral. Be wary of referrals. A lot of organizations have a referral program in place that incentivizes employees to refer quality candidates to the organization. And while the intent behind these programs is genuine and innocent (we all want quality candidates, right?), please be cautious of perpetuating a homogenous workforce, as employees tend to refer candidates who are in their own group. This is not said to discourage you from having and/or implementing these programs; rather, I say this to make you aware of the potential for keeping your workforce the same when your ultimate goal is to create diversity.

The interview. Before we even get to the interview itself, you should consider training the individuals who do your front-line interviews. They should be made aware of potential implicit biases they may have and what impact those biases can have on their behavior in the interviews. They should also be trained on types of questions to avoid. Another suggestion would be for you to have a diverse panel during the interview process rather than a single interviewer.

Your Policies and Practices. A critical review of your hiring processes and policies would be prudent as well. Try to locate any weak links that could potentially expose your organization to a hiring bias claim. Examine your practices to ensure that you are diversifying your labor pool. Are you using a third-party recruiter? If so, ask them to provide an analysis of the types of candidates in the labor pool and how you can expand that, if needed. Additionally, if you have not already, you may want to consider developing a mentoring program for females (and other minorities) in your organization. This may help build and support the guidance needed to combat these biases in the workforce. In my firm, we have a Women’s Initiative that is, in part, designed for this purpose. I know that I rely heavily on some of my female mentors within the firm for guidance and support.

Train, train, train. And train some more. In addition to conducting your yearly training on harassment and discrimination, you may want to offer effective bias training. This awareness training offers employees a safe space to learn about unconscious bias, how to recognize their own biases, and how to be mindful about combating them in everyday decision making. In addition, these trainings assist organizations in developing solutions for overcoming biases in hiring and promotions. An example provided in the Forbes article was that when symphony orchestras began utilizing blind auditions, the number of women in the five leading orchestras in the United States increased five-fold. You, too, may be able to reach some solutions to diversify your workforce and leadership team, by conducting this training with your employees and hiring managers.

I hope this article leaves you with the inspiration that you can make a difference in your organizations; you can help combat subconscious biases in your respective organization to help advance women and minorities.

Courtney Leyes, Attorney Fisher Philips cleyes@fisherphillips.com www.fisherphillips.com

Courtney Leyes, Attorney
Fisher Philips