In engineering, where good talent is limited, it is vital that organisations are attractive workplaces for women and minority groups if they want to excel. Mary Carroll explains
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A half-day workshop on ‘Understanding Unconscious Bias’, facilitated by Mary Carroll, will be held at Engineers Ireland on Wednesday 15 June from 2pm-5pm. Participants will explore what unconscious bias is, how it manifests itself in the workplace, its effects and how to address it. For more information, see here.

Why are nearly 60% of corporate CEOs in America over 6ft tall, when not even 15% of American men are over 6ft? Why would only 49% of people reviewing a CV with a female name deem the person worthy of hire when 79% reviewing the exact same CV, with a man’s name, elected to hire him? Why are people more likely to buy French wine when French music is playing in a supermarket and German wine when German music is playing?

It’s all due to unconscious or implicit bias. ‘Unconscious bias’ is bias that is automatic, outside our control and of which we are unaware. It triggers rapid assessments and judgements. It’s why we duck if a tennis or golf ball is coming straight for our head. Imagine how dangerous the roads would be if all of us were driving consciously the way we did when we were learner drivers. We couldn’t function, or indeed survive, if all our decisions were made consciously.

It’s estimated that at any moment, we have 10-40 million bits of information in our brains, but that only 40 of those are being processed consciously. So, these unconscious assessments and judgments generally serve us well. The problem is that they can and do lead to mistakes and errors of judgment.

Traditional approaches to diversity and inclusion have assumed that people who discriminate do so consciously – if only ‘they’ got it the way ‘we’ do, everything would be ok! The reality is that we all have unconscious biases and research indicates that we often don’t even realise that they are influencing our behaviour.

Research findings


A survey by Malcolm Gladwell revealed that although about 14.5% of American men are 6ft or over, that number is 58% among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sent CVs for the position of assistant professor to 238 male and female psychologists at universities throughout the US. The CVs were based on an actual CV and differed in one respect – half of them had a female name and half had a male name. Some 79% of the male CVs and only 49% of the CVs with female names were deemed worthy of hire. Female evaluators were just as likely to be biased as male participants. In a further part of the study, CVs with female names generated four times more doubt-raising comments, such as ‘I would need to see more evidence that she did this herself’, than the equivalents with male names.

A University of Leicester study involved the removal of all except French and German wines from a supermarket. Then, on alternate days, they played music and displayed flags from both those countries. Some 76.9% of people bought French wine when the French flag was up and 73.3% bought German wine on the German themed day. Only 14% said that they heard music and only one person said they thought it had influenced them.

Are American recruiters consciously biased towards tall men? Do they consider tallness as a necessary qualifier for being a CEO? I’m pretty sure that most, if not all, of the people reviewing those male/female named CVs would not consider themselves sexist. And isn’t it interesting that only one person considered that the type of music playing had influenced their wine-buying decision?

Effects of bias and why it matters


So, what are the effects of unconscious bias and does it really matter? Is a small amount of bias really going to have dramatic effects? Twenty years ago, researchers at Columbia University, Rice University and the University of Otago ran a computer simulation to mimic 1% bias in the promotion of male and female employees through eight levels of an organisation. What they discovered was that a mere 1% bias ultimately led to only 35% women at the most senior level in the organisation. So, a small amount of bias can have a dramatic effect.

Without even realising it, our biases can influence the performance of other people. For example, if a person quite like us is sitting across from us in an interview, we may find ourselves warming to them. Our body language and the words we use may cause them to relax and, consequently, they perform very well.

Without realising it, we don’t initially respond as well to the next candidate, with whom we don’t share as many experiences. Our body language conveys it; they don’t relax and consequently don’t perform to their full potential. And yet, we probably come away without realising for a moment how our responses impacted their performances.

It has been demonstrated that diverse management teams and boards lead to better performance in organisations. Diverse product development teams are a basis for better innovation and increase the likelihood that products will meet the requirements of all potential users. When YouTube launched the first iteration of its video upload app for iOS, the company was surprised to find that 5-10% of videos were being uploaded upside down. This was because left-handers tend to turn a phone through 180o, but YouTube’s almost exclusively right-handed development team had not factored that in.

Additionally, less biased organisations have not limited their options by disregarding, underestimating or simply not seeing the potential of pools of talent that are not typical of their current workforce. In sectors where good talent is limited, such as software engineering, it is increasingly important for organisations to ensure that they are or become attractive workplaces for women and minority groups if they want to excel.

As more and more organisations recognise the importance of creating and maintaining inclusive environments, this will become a competitive advantage and people will just not tolerate working in an environment that does not value them.

What individuals and organisations can do


Individuals who want to address unconscious bias can first acknowledge that we all have biases and then challenge their own by, for example, when they find themselves responding negatively to a person, asking themselves if they would react the same way if that person was a different race/class/gender/age/sexual orientation.

Verbalising your support for other people when you see stereotyping in operation can be challenging, depending on the circumstances, but may be as simple as gently reminding meeting attendees about who first voiced a particular idea. Endorsing people who do not tend to promote themselves is also constructive.

Organisations can start with data, both qualitative and quantitative, to establish some metrics around inclusion and diversity. Establishing processes for decision making has been shown to reduce the impact of bias. An obvious decision that historically has been very impacted by bias is the recruitment process. Defining clear criteria, writing job ads to make them more attractive to a broader cross-section of people and documenting of decisions to ensure transparency are just some of the good practices that lead to better outcomes.

Paying attention to the visibility of diversity is important. What do the images in your organisation and speakers at your events convey about your organisation and what it takes to be successful or to be listened to?

Training in unconscious bias for all employees not only raises awareness, but also emphasises the fact that this is an issue for all of us – we all have biases, we can all choose to address them and addressing them will lead to better outcomes for everyone. The CEO and senior management can have a huge influence on the creation of an environment where people can ‘call it’ and name unconscious bias when they see it happening without that being seen as confrontational.

So, we couldn’t survive without unconscious bias, but we can raise awareness about and seek to address those biases that lead to bad decision-making and judgements. It won’t happen overnight; organisations must be committed to it but sustained action will lead to better working environments for all of us.

Mary Carroll unconscious bias

(Photo: Brian Farrell)

Mary Carroll BE, MBA, MIEI, AC Accred is a business strategist and accredited coach with a background in design engineering, management consulting and business development. She has worked in senior management and principal consulting roles in various sectors for over 20 years. Since 2010, Carroll has supported clients in strategy development, inclusion and diversity and business and executive coaching through her business, Growth Potential. (www.growthpotential.ie). Her ‘Double X’ workshops and programmes support organisations in ensuring that all of their people get the opportunity to flourish and reach their full potential. Carroll is vice-chair of WITS (Women in Technology & Science) and can be contacted at mary@growthpotential.ie or +353 87 9933451.

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A half-day workshop on ‘Understanding Unconscious Bias’, facilitated by Mary Carroll, will be held at Engineers Ireland on Wednesday 15 June from 2pm-5pm. Participants will explore what unconscious bias is, how it manifests itself in the workplace, its effects and how to address it. For more information, see here. Why...