Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Does your boss’s subconscious knee-cap your career?

Published 04 March 2013 12:22, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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Does your boss’s subconscious knee-cap your career?

If people aren’t ware of their own biases they’re not really in a position to do anything about them. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Strangely enough, Australians have appeared to embrace the concept of unconscious bias more than any other country in the world.

It is not hard to see the attraction. The demographic of our boardrooms and upper levels of management is unrelentingly white and male – to such an extent that it shocks expatriates from countries like the US and Britain.

Unconscious bias is a prejudice that you don’t realise you have.

When he joined Westpac from the US, former CEO Bob Joss was appalled by the way the overwhelmingly female branch staff became a sea of men once he arrived at the corporate head office.

But, by setting targets, within five years, the number of women in senior management went from 5 per cent to 20 per cent.

Australian leaders are not bad people. Overwhelmingly, they are intelligent, caring and well-intentioned and they would be shocked, surprised and offended if someone were to accuse them of making decisions based on prejudice.

But, if they don’t know they are biased, if it is unconscious, they can’t really be expected to do anything about it, can they?

Researcher and consultant Dr Graeme Russell is concerned about the faddishness around unconscious bias. While he does not doubt that it exists, he worries that organisations are putting their trust in unconscious bias training sessions, when there isn’t evidence that such training has an impact.

“Some diversity training doesn’t change things at all ... it doesn’t have the research evidence,” he says.

He calls it a “fridge magnet approach”: something that sits on the outside, rather than venturing inside.

What is more important, he says, is to deal with conscious bias and to put into place the structures and procedures – such as the targets at Westpac – which actually have an impact.

“It is more important to plan targets, accountability, have resources, expert networking for women and minority groups, to have more social interaction with influential people.

“Then behaviour and mind-sets change as a result of those.

“It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting,” he says.

Other useful measures are to look at government and organisational policy about managing flexible working and, on a personal level, look at the division of labour in the home.

Dealing with the attitudes and underlying beliefs behind the unconscious bias is something that does need to be addressed, however, this is not an easy conversation to have in a workplace, he says.

Organisations should be encouraging behaviours and skills that involve “perspective taking” (being able to think yourself into another person’s shoes), curiosity and psychological flexibility.

“These are fundamental work skills”, he says.

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