Unconscious bias – we’re all guilty in varying degrees

As the principal partner of Solutia SDO, Jackie Clark has had a direct role in managing the people behind the technology that’s transformed businesses across Canada. When IT projects stall, this seasoned leader, who’s had a front seat watching tech transform business in Canada, knows how to manage people to get projects running again. This bi-weekly column is for leaders working on enterprise-wide projects searching for insight on navigating the issues and pain points that hijack success. We’ll be sharing the most common questions Clark hears from her clients and her responses to them. Do you want your project management problems solved? Leave a comment with your question or  Tweet Jackie @sdosolutia


I have a client who says he’s fully committed to diversity, but I can’t get him to hire qualified women. Whenever I raise this, he says the women candidates I present aren’t a good fit for his team. He’s critical to my business so I can’t ‘fire’ him. What should I do?

Hmmm – could be a case of ‘unconscious bias’.  We heard a lot of conversation about this just recently during International Women’s Day. We’re all guilty of bringing it into the workplace.

First a bit of science….experts say our brains are working hard to assimilate approx. 11 million pieces of information per second, but in reality, can only capture 50 pieces per second and actually process seven. And that’s on a good day. Our brain must constantly take shortcuts to fill in the blanks resulting in learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, personal and able to influence behaviour and perceptions.  This results in snap judgments about people and their capability before we even realize we’ve done it.  The unconscious bias to avoid risk and hire people with similar characteristics to ourselves can be a real barrier to achieving diversity.

According to McKinsey’s ‘Delivering Through Diversity’ report, “Gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity within teams continues to be correlated to financial performance across multiple countries worldwide.” Yet despite this, they also reveal continued neglect of diversity across organizations. Similarly, a Catalyst study found that companies with more women in executive positions have a 34 per cent higher return to shareholders. What’s more, companies with the most women directors have a 26% higher return on invested capital than those with the least. And 37 per cent of surveyed employees believe that gender diversity means better business results.

Okay, okay enough with the reports and stats. I don’t need to convince you that diversity, and particularly gender diversity is key to corporate success. But what can be done to educate your client about a problem he doesn’t even know he has?

First, he has to become aware of his potential for bias. This is hard. It requires an objective examination of his teams. Does everyone share similar backgrounds or characteristics, does he only consider the opinion of certain people on his teams, and is there a lack of diversity and inclusion that he created through his hiring decisions and team management?

Second, find the triggers that cause bias. Is it evident in certain meetings, when he makes tough decisions – like recruitment – or when talking to certain groups or individuals.

Next, slow down. Pause before he makes a snap decision to consider the alternatives.

And lastly, you should suggest he try to do one thing differently every day – like hire one of your qualified women candidates!

Many companies have introduced mandatory unconscious bias training so your client is being exposed. If there is no change in his behaviour, you may have to part ways and let him know you are committed to working with clients who truly embrace diversity.

Jackie Clark
Jackie Clark
Program and change management expert in digital and data transformation, and technology system reengineering.

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