A group of miniature men and women standing on either side of a pile of coins, equal pay, gender pay gap

International Women’s Day 2022: Overcoming unconscious bias for a more equal future

International Women’s Day has been raising awareness and striving for gender equality for 111 years.

Whilst much has been achieved in this time, Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress, reminds us why such a day is still so important in 2022: “International Women’s Day is meant to celebrate women and recognize their achievements. For too long, women have been left out of the history books and decision-making conversations, and that is especially true for the STEM fields. Names like Rosalind Franklin, Katherine Johnson and Mae C. Jemison should be just as recognisable as Steve Jobs. Women’s contributions to the STEM fields should be acknowledged and praised, and we need to continue this momentum for all girls and women pursuing these fields. And how do we do that? By investing in them.”

With this in mind, WeAreTechWomen spoke to industry experts to determine why there is still such a gender gap in society, and the technology industry in particular, and what organisations can be doing to close the gap and support their female employees.

Institutional bias from a young age

One of the main barriers preventing women from entering the technology industry is the pre-existing gender bias that makes the sector so male-dominated.

“The biggest barriers in technology for women are what we believe they can accomplish, and attitudes surrounding that on an educational level,” explains Lucy Zhang, Senior Digital Designer at Plutora. “Most people can agree that the idea that women are better suited for certain types of work is outdated, but this notion still permeates society and is difficult to tackle head-on.”

“Of course, the lack of diversity in tech is not a problem solely facilitated by the employment sector, for many, the issues begin far before entering the workforce,” adds Caroline Seymour, VP of Product Marketing at Zerto, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. “Young girls face notable obstacles from very early on in their schooling, whether that is unconscious bias, or being actively discouraged from STEM subjects. Therefore, by the time they are making career choices, many have not taken on higher STEM education and therefore do not have the necessary qualifications to enter the science and technology sectors as easily as their male counterparts.” 

Samantha Humphries, Head of Security Strategy EMEA at Exabeam agrees that “the biggest obstacles women face often start long before they enter formal employment. Young girls face conscious and unconscious bias throughout their entire schooling and as a result, often overlook or are actively discouraged from pursuing STEM subjects. But, is encouraging girls to participate in traditional STEM subjects the only way forward? I’m a big supporter of adding an ‘A’ for ‘Arts’ to the acronym. Creativity is needed across the board in tech roles, and often girls do levitate towards these kinds of subjects. If we did a better job of promoting the importance of creative thinking in technology, we could inspire more women and girls into the industry – both as they begin their careers, and to join the industry later in life too.”

Fight for fairness

With awareness of the institutional bias that is still so prominent within society, it is important that organisations fight against this and have initiatives in place to support women in tech. 

“We continue to champion the women in our business and celebrate their achievements around the world,” emphasises Dominique Fougerat – EVP People & Culture at Axway. “We can actively choose to challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations, and celebrate women’s achievements. We support local education programs to contribute to start inclusion earlier in life than just at work. We are on an irresistible path to a different kind of society and tech must reflect this challenge to all businesses: We challenge all businesses to join the discussion and, if we pull together as an industry, we can improve as a sector and support the technology women of today and inspire those of tomorrow.”

In order to make these big societal changes, smaller steps are needed. Focusing on making recruitment and progression processes inclusive is an important first step for achieving these bigger aims.

“Recruitment, personal development, and promotion processes are key to building a work environment that fosters gender equality,” states Eulalia Flo, Sales Director, Iberia at Commvault. “We have to be careful that they don’t continue to perpetuate inequality. If I want to recruit more women and I know that there are not many female graduates in one career, it would be good to ask in which other careers I can find them (for example, there are more women in aeronautics than in mechanical engineering, or in biomedical engineering than in telecommunications).”

“Using language that is female inclusive and drawing out the benefits that would attract within HR sites and in job descriptions is also key,” adds Sharon Forder, SVP Marketing at Glasswall. “Practising what you preach by actively promoting females into leadership roles and helping them to become part of the ‘face of the company’ will contribute to breaking down the long standing perceptions of ‘it’s a male dominated sector’.” 

Furthermore, with domestic duties and childcare responsibilities falling on many women, it is important that organisations are mindful of this and don’t prioritise men without these burdens for promotions and other workplace advantages. The COVID-19 pandemic has been beneficial in this case by bringing about a greater appreciation for flexible working.

As Bruce Martin – CFO at Tax Systems explains: “Organisations need to open their businesses up to the large diverse talent pool that is too often overlooked – the part time workers, which statistically are more likely to be women. Challenging the traditional 9 to 5 / 5 days a week approach is one way to achieve this.

“At Tax Systems we have embraced agile working practices and worked hard throughout the company to encourage and support part time and flexible working before, during and now after the COVID pandemic. By being more accommodating and taking on the objective approach of trusting our team to get the work done, we are able to widen our talent pool and get the right people in the right roles – irrespective of location, time constraints or personal circumstance.”

A brighter future

Organisations are certainly becoming more aware of their role in closing the gender gap and diversity is now a topic of boardroom discussion in many businesses. As we continue to move in the right direction and push further for equality, International Women’s Day provides the perfect opportunity to “celebrate women all over the world who pushed forward in an effort to #BreakTheBias so others could thrive,” notes Julie Giannini, Chief Customer Officer at Egnyte. “While the journey is far from over – with women in leadership remaining underrepresented and gender biases still prevalent across many industries – we can take the time to celebrate the women who got us here, as well as those who keep pushing.”

Mariam Karamyan, Associate Software Development Manager at HelpSystems concludes: “This International Women’s Day I want to encourage organisations to focus on what more they can be doing to promote female role models and celebrate the women they currently have in leadership positions. At the end of the day, this will not only benefit women but the company as a whole. Men and women see things differently and bring unique ideas to the table. With true diversity of thought, we can achieve better problem solving and boost performance at the business unit level.”

Meet our 100 incredible leaders breaking the bias & calling for societal change this International Women’s Day

As part of our #WeAreBreakingTheBias campaign, we will be sharing the thoughts of over 100 leaders who are calling for societal change for women. We hope you will join us so we can amplify why we should all #BreakTheBias for gender equity.

VIEW OUR 100 INSPIRING LEADERS

Team working by group video call share ideas, global teamsTeam working by group video call share ideas, global teams

Recognising unconscious bias in the virtual workplace

Team working by group video call share ideas, global teams, virtual workplace

By Charlotte Berg, CEO at Compodium

2020 and 2021 will be memorable years – years that have caused many people a lot of hardship, but ones that also ushered in a new era of digital, workplace and social transformation.

One of the central threads to this is video communication – now widely used in almost all environments. Whether it’s meetings between employees, talking to your doctor or staying in touch with family members, video became the go-to tool in a year where face-to-face communication was severely restricted.

One of the first places to see this change was television news interviews.  Where previously guests would have patiently waited behind the scenes, ready to join the presenters in the studio for a short face-to-face conversation, suddenly these interviews began taking place over a video conferencing link.  This was an immediate solution, but an effective alternative for providing an expert opinion on a news story.  It was an approach that almost every industry would soon replicate.

The power of a bookcase

What became clear very quickly in the move to home-based interviewees on the news was how effective a subtle piece of background self-promotion could be on a video call.  With most of the screen taken up with the call participant, there isn’t a great deal of room for much else.  However, a well-placed book, award or piece of art in the background of the call – for example, on a bookshelf – can be an extremely effective promotional tool for the interviewee.  A shameful plug or brilliant marketing?  That’s a question open to debate.  But the innate power of imagery in this context is clear – which is why marketing agencies can charge significant sums for delivering this type of branding for businesses.

As Newton’s third law states: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In this situation, a well-placed prop in a video call background can encourage a viewer to make assumptions about intelligence or accomplishment, or perhaps be more likely to take a particular action (“buy my book!”).  The opposite is also true; an ill-thought-out object in the background has a subtle power to convey a negative message, encourage harmful assumptions or, at its worst, damage the relationship between participants.

This notion is called unconscious bias.  It’s one of the many ‘tools’ the human brain relies on to speed up decision making – along with confirmation bias, availability bias and hindsight bias to name just a few – and is present in all of us.  Everyone has unconscious biases and – as the name suggests – for the most part, people are unaware they impact their decision making and assumptions.

Recognising bias in new ways

The question of bias is at its heart a complex and difficult one.  Regardless of how open-minded we try to be, having bias is part of what makes us human.  But combined with societal, cultural and historical stereotypes and prejudices, unconscious bias can heavily influence how we behave towards, or think about, other people.

Recognising, understanding and overcoming this bias plays a huge role in the workplace.

Many organisations are aware of the issues surrounding unconscious bias in the workplace and there are a range of advisory services, such as Acas, offering independent help and advice – online tests that help individuals become more aware of their own biases.  The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace can determine how people make choices, from the way they allocate tasks to how they manage challenging situations and conflict between colleagues.  It can emerge in even the most inclusive of teams, particularly during challenging and stressful times, or periods of uncertainty.

And this is where we need to be mindful in the new era of video collaboration.  In the past, efforts to address unconscious bias has focused on first impressions, handshakes, eye contact, and clothing choices.  With much of this now off the table, organisations must ensure the same level of focus is given to video communications – providing limited body language but other considerations such as background and décor.  It’s entirely likely that video conferencing has actually opened up new avenues for unconscious bias, with everyone from employees to doctors now showcasing more aspects of their personal lives and living spaces.

Whether it’s seeing where someone lives, meeting their pets, hearing their children, or noticing a well-stocked garden – these things can contribute to the subconscious thoughts, feelings, assumptions and decisions someone makes on a video call.

Seeing bias for what it is

Amy Bonomi, a social science researcher from Michigan State University, and Nelia Viveiros from University of Colorado, have recently explained how unconscious bias works in practice during video conversations.  The researchers concluded that video calls have the potential to uncover unconscious bias related to gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Even something as straightforward to a conversation icebreaker can unintentionally reinforce dominant social norms and identities.

In the new era of video collaboration, it’s crucial that organisations recognise the potential for bias to occur in this way and put in place processes and tools to help employees identify and overcome this when it happens.  Amy Bonomi and Nelia Viveiros offer a number of areas organisations can focus on the support inclusivity, including:

  • Using inclusive language
  • Approaching conversations with sensitivity
  • Remaining conscious of symbolism in the ‘virtual environment’ and how participants may want to express themselves
  • Challenging microaggressions when they occur and any negative effects they may have had on participants
  • Respecting participants’ time by including frequent breaks in long calls

Unconscious bias is not unique to the post-pandemic era we now find ourselves in, but organisations need to be even more mindful of its impact now virtual collaboration is firmly established in the workplace.  Working virtually offers enormous benefits to society.  But as with any widespread social shift, it’s crucial we ensure inclusivity is at its heart.