Mara Swan is a self-identified fast talker. She races through words, gets to the point and dislikes it when others do not follow suit. “If someone comes into an interview and talks slow, I can’t stand them,” confesses Ms. Swan, executive vice-president for global strategy at ManpowerGroup. “I tell myself that it has nothing to do with [their] intellect, but it drives me crazy.”
Ms. Swan’s prejudice against slow talkers has informed her approach to eliminating gender bias in her company, where she advocates relying more on assessments than interviews when recruiting. “We need to rely on the data to assess people — it is more reliable than interviewing by far,” she says. “We need to distrust our instincts ... we are still making decisions based on who we like, we still believe in our instinct to pick good people.”
One report by Australian academics found that while “merit” is lauded in recruitment, it is a subjective concept. A common answer from middle managers when interviewed by researchers was “we want the best person for the job,” says Sue Williamson, one of the authors and a researcher at the University of New South Wales. “But when we asked them, ‘How do you know who that person is?’, it became clear that they had a very shallow understanding of merit.”
This is because what constitutes being meritorious changes over time and with social values, she says. Given that society has traditionally disadvantaged women, it is not so surprising our traditional concept of merit does the same.
Biased organizational systems
“It seems to me that merit is this ‘ideal worker’, who can work long hours and [is] willing to work in the office, rather than working from home,” says Ms. Williamson. “It is also around who is the most visible in the workplace. Managers are so busy all the time that they keep giving the same people the high-profile projects rather than looking [around].” Because of these ingrained biases towards long hours and presenteeism, women with families are at a disadvantage.
Attitudes towards the work ethic in the creative industry tend to work against women, says Ms. Jordan Bambach. “If you happen to have more classical ‘female’ traits, such as being courteous and more of a ‘shepherd’ rather than a top-down leader — you’re not seen as being leadership material in the creative world.”
However, as part of her research for The Great British Diversity Experiment, an initiative for the communications industry in 2015-16, she found the opposite was true: teams with a top-down approach were less likely to generate ideas than teams led by “peer enablers”.
Biases are ingrained, and often unconscious, but re-educating can be counterproductive if done badly. "If organizations do an unconscious bias training and that is all they do, that has more negative consequences than positive ones,” says Ms. Williamson. “People think ‘I’m not biased, I’ve done training, I know what’s going on’ and then without thinking further fall back on their implicit biases."
“There is also the paradox of meritocracy, where organisations who think they apply the merit principle — because they think all their processes and the way they behave is meritorious — don’t question their beliefs.”
Clare Gordon, a partner at Bain & Co., the management consultancy, agrees. “We need to think of the systems and processes that will get rid of this bias rather than focusing on the individual.”
Bain tries to avoid practices that tend to favour men, such as self-reporting for promotion, and it has tried to remove subjective aspects in recruitment by putting forward clear assessment criteria and making sure they have a diverse group of candidates. When very few women applied for an advertised position at one of ManpowerGroup’s clients, a tech company in India, it tweaked aspects of the job description.
“If you ask women to name five things that they’re good at, they might not apply,” says Ms. Swan. “So we focus by talking about the kinds of things you are ‘interested in’ and we have a lot more women apply as a result of that.”
Navigating biased systems
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About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment.
Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network.
A version of this article originally appears in The Financial Times ©, September 19, 2018 by Layli Foroudi.
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