Breaking bias in the modern workplace

14th March 2022

The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 is ‘break the bias’ – but what does it mean and how can we do this in our organisations? Our Chief People Officer, Sharon De Mendonca dives into what biases women face in the workplace and how we can all take steps to overcome them to forge better, more inclusive environments for all.

What is bias? 

Bias is complex. We all have bias and stereotypes both conscious and subconscious. Relying on these snap judgements can be useful at times, particularly in times of danger, but making snap judgements about people can be harmful. In the workplace, bias can come in many forms such as:

  • Undervaluing an individual because of their age or gender, such as assuming a woman is an administrator rather than her actual position as team leader
  • Accusing women of being ‘over emotional’ or criticising them for being ‘bossy’ when the same behaviour from a man is considered ‘assertive’ or ‘strong leadership’
  • Listening to or valuing the opinion of a male co-worker more than a female one even if they have the same or similar opinions
  • Assuming that someone will behave a particular way because of their gender, beliefs, sexuality or the region/country they are from

People of all genders can consciously or unconsciously make biased comments or behave in a way that disadvantages women, so counteracting this takes work and dedication. Knowing bias exists isn’t enough. Due to the results this bias can have on people’s daily lives, their opportunities and their health (both mental and physical), we need to not only be aware of this bias but also take steps to counteract it.

By recognising it in yourself and others, you can mitigate the effects of these biases by taking the time to make measured decisions and speak up when you see biased behaviour in others.

Why is fighting bias important?

As mentioned above, biases can have a significant impact on a person’s career, opportunities and health and the past two years have intensified this further. The pandemic has had a profound impact on everyone in the workplace and has exacerbated existing equality issues that have long been present in the business space.

Research from McKinsey has shown that three in four women experience bias at work and those who do are more likely to leave their jobs. Coupled with the effects of the pandemic including redundancies, burnout and ‘the Great Resignation’ where many are downshifting or refocusing their careers, there is a perfect storm.

We need to take action now to promote, hire and retain women and that includes breaking the biases that they face in the workplace. This message also extends far beyond the working environment. As International Women’s Day shows, there is a desire to create a world free from bias, stereotypes and discrimination in all its forms; a world where difference is valued and celebrated. Collectively, we can all work together to break the bias.

Not just for women

International Women’s Day is a key day to focus on breaking down stereotypes, celebrating women and focusing on achieving gender parity. But men can play their part too. Everyone can play a role in forging gender parity. To make this change and create a better environment for women, we need advocacy, inclusive mindsets and tangible action from men and women alike. It’s also worth mentioning that the rise of women is not about the fall of men – it’s about equality for all.

We know it can be particularly difficult for men to know how best to support women in the workplace. Research has found that while 60% of men support having more female leaders in the workplace, they overstate their efforts to be allies and lack an understanding of the issues women face. So, what can they do?

The most important thing is to be an ally. As stated by the International Women’s Development Agency, ‘male allyship – especially when men are prepared to use their privilege to support gender equality – is a welcome amplification of women’s voices’. Support your female colleagues, friends and loved ones, listen to them and call out biased behaviour if you see it. And remember, gender equality isn’t just about improving the lives of women. It’s about challenging all damaging gender bias, stereotypes and roles.

Ask your female colleagues what they need, don’t assume. For example, don’t avoid giving women work when they return from maternity leave because you don’t want to overburden them. Despite the well meaning behind it, that falls into the 'bias trap' of underestimating their abilities because they’re a woman. Instead, ask them how they feel about their workload and the amount that they would feel comfortable doing.

As a starting point, Forbes suggests two ways in which you can be a better ally:

  • Listen to women and pay attention to the specific ways in which they want to be supported; and
  • Know when to step back and when to step in.

Strategies to fight bias

Great strides have been made in recent years and many societies have moved on from women having to succeed in a man’s world, but there is still more to be done. There are numerous ways for both men and women to take steps to reduce bias including the following strategies from Lean In:

  1. Speak up for someone in the moment

Your actions can have a great impact when someone is facing bias at work. For example, remind people of a colleague’s talents when they have been overlooked. Ask to hear from someone who was interrupted in a conversation. Or when someone says something incorrect (for example, assuming a woman is more junior than she is), correct them either in the moment or in private later.

  1. Asking a probing question

Ask a question that makes your colleague examine their thinking, such as ‘what makes you say that?’ or ‘can you give me an example of that?’ This can help people discover the bias in their own thinking. And remember, sometimes we can experience unconscious bias, so the aim is not to embarrass or humiliate your colleague. Instead, see it as an opportunity to learn and offer them a new perspective.

  1. Stick to the facts

When you can, turn the conversation towards concrete, neutral information to minimise bias in situations where someone’s biased opinion is steering the conversation. For example, if someone makes a subjective or biased comment in a meeting, refocus attention back to the agenda or the facts at hand.

  1. Advocate for change

If you notice recurring bias at work, you can talk to your HR or leadership teams. Raise the issue and suggest any solutions or best practices that could reduce bias for your colleagues.

We are all aware of the biases that people face, both in and out of work. Forging gender parity can seem like a mammoth task and you may wonder ‘what impact can I make? I’m only one person’. It is everyone’s responsibility to break the bias. Start with the small steps within your team or department. Celebrate the little wins. Speak to your staff and act on feedback to improve areas that matter to them.

Listening to your employees and taking clear steps to make changes within your organisation will have immeasurable effects on productivity, engagement and more. It may seem like a lot of time and creativity is needed for this but remember, we responded to the pandemic rapidly and comprehensively when change to remote work was critical. If we can do that, we can do anything - so start today on your path to women's equality by challenging the bias both within and around you. 

To read more about our commitment to equality and other ESG initiatives, click here.

To read more about IWD and stories from our staff across the Group, click here

*This article was featured in Russell Bedford's September 2022 edition of Business World on pages 14 - 15. To view the article, click here.


Sharon De Mendonca L   Sharon De Mendonca


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