Contact William Buist on M: 07880 794127 E:

The silent strategy of gender bias

by | Aug 23, 2017 | Business

My grandmother was born in February, 1884, and all her life she fought for women to get the vote and for many other rights unfairly denied. At the end of her life she was told she had done a lot for women’s equality. Her reply was that it was a ‘good start’.

One thing unconsciously working its harm by discriminating against half the population in many businesses is unconscious gender bias. In our recent blog post [1] we highlighted that such silent strategies have symptoms that can be spotted, and this post will focus on some of the symptoms and consequences of it.

One question to be answered is how much difference gender diversity makes. Is it a prize worth chasing? In their January 2015 study of the impact of diversity [2], McKinsey’s found businesses in the top quartile of gender-diverse companies outperformed their markets by around 15% and that those in the bottom quartile underperformed.

Another question is whether those at the top know the value of being more gender diverse. In another study Forbes [3], interviewed the executives of large organisations. The conclusion: the benefits of diversity were shown to be important for both innovation and staff retention. Yet, even given the evidence, we still see the symptoms of a pay gap and unfairness both perceived and real, in many areas.

Another symptom of hidden bias is in the venture capital market’s attitude to funding. The CrunchBase ‘Women in Venture’ report [4] highlights just 10% of VC funding is going to businesses started by women.  In a BusinessZone article [5], Helene Panzarino identifies that in 2016 VCs invested $58.2bn (£44.9bn) in companies with all-male founders, but just  $1.4bn (£1.1bn) in those run by women. She says, ‘The differences relate to both deal size and the number of deals, but the disparity is staggering, to say the least.’

In recent UK news, the pay differences of women at the BBC [6] and gender differences in the judiciary [7] show more examples of apparently unfair gender-based bias. Yet they are symptoms, and it can be dangerous to diagnose the disease too quickly. Symptoms may sometimes be explained by other differences, or lead you to look at other aspects of the business. For example, there are more businesses started by men, so you’d expect more VC funding to head their way, but how much more? And why are more businesses started by men? That needs a deeper analysis.

In the course of researching this blog I spoke to a number of people (of both genders) in a variety of professions. Intellectually it was clear they all agreed with the need for more to be done, and as things stood there are missed opportunities. The women I spoke to talked often of casual sexism, often unconsciously done. The men spoke about the actions they were taking; I sensed many felt they had done enough.  Indeed, in a personal example, in a professional group online I saw first-hand how casual, unconscious, sexism reinforces bias whilst many were oblivious, or perhaps worse, indifferent, to it.

The symptoms fall into three main categories: unconscious prejudice, language and behaviour and willingness to change. Unconscious prejudice works by leading people to question one group more than another, to make assumptions based on falsehood and to have differing standards. It leads to outcomes often extremely skewed. The VC example is symptomatic of prejudice.

When we look at language and behaviour I’d stress – this is not about ‘political correctness’ or restricting or eliminating words and phrases. It is a recognition that some language or ‘ways of working’ can be biased towards one gender over another and which definitely works both ways. For example, team nights out may be something which not everyone can attend for a variety of reasons. Inclusivity, of any sort, takes effort.

In general, though, the biggest symptom is how someone reacts when challenged, particularly on behaviour or language. It’s here we can tell the most. In the personal example I witnessed recently, when the symptomatic behaviour was anonymously identified, the leader of the organisation condemned the behaviour in strong terms. When it was identified the perpetrator was from his own organisation the behaviour was then excused. First on the basis of it being ‘just their style’ and then because they ‘hadn’t thought it through’. That is symptomatic.

So what is to be done? 

Back in 2014 Susan Medina wrote [8] about Google’s struggle with diversity and their recognition that waiting and talking were not enough.  Susan highlighted that Google had forgotten about the needs to change the internal culture, and not just hoping externally balanced polices, for example for recruitment, would be enough.

The example I gave above highlights this. When it’s a theoretical issue, it’s easy to be indignant, when it’s your issue there is a return to excusing what happened as an aberration. When there are no consequences for the activities someone undertakes, why would they ‘think it through’? Consequences are an essential part of addressing and correcting the issue. These are cultural matters. The first step is to agree what the consequences will be when such a matter arises and always apply them. Perhaps, if the context is acceptable, you could give just one warning, but only one.

One male conversationalist I chatted with about the issue commented that he would happily empower more women in his organisation if only they would step forward. Yet when I speak to women they often are unwilling to engage with strongly male-biased organisational top teams. Something more radical is needed. My good friend Rohit Talwar recently suggested in such situations there’s a need to create a vacuum by, for example, all the men at the top of an organisation stepping aside for two or three years to allow women to take the top leadership roles. This is the second step, being radical in your approach to equality.  ‘Radical’ meaning taking bold and different steps to ensure equality, rather than passively seeking to avoid discrimination.

A 2015 KPMG Women’s leadership study [9] concluded, ‘Overall, while much has been gained and accomplished for aspiring women leaders, many have been sidetracked by a lack of confidence, encouragement, connections or opportunities from childhood and later’ (my emphasis) and I think it highlights something truly important. From the very earliest moments our society embeds difference, not opportunity. Schooling, subject matters taught, career paths and more are defined, in part, by gender.  It creates echo chambers of self-reinforcing stereotypes that ultimately ensure the language, behaviours and reactions quickly become embedded and subconscious, and damaging. It may be less true now than when I started work, but it is clearly still present. To address it we must acknowledge it and surface it, so that it can be part of the collective conscious. We must actively (proactively) work to take it into account for those in the workforce today, and correct it for those to come. This is the third step: at every age and in every situation each of us must be certain we are not subconsciously embedding difference, not reinforcing stereotypes and not allowing an inequality to persist to our personal benefit.

I’ll be clear here, I have been guilty of these subconsciously embedded biases too. I’ve resisted change as well. For example, I’ve often commented that positive discrimination is just another form of discrimination, and it is. Where I was wrong was to consider it a flaw when I now realise it leads to much greater strength. We live in difficult times, economically and politically, but we do not need to choose to continue to live in such unreasonably biased times culturally. Taking a long view, when in the short term we may not be as rewarded as we could be, is tough.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes, Founder of Ginger Public Speaking [10], a training company said to me in the course of researching for this post, ‘I think men and women complement each other, and it would be great if they decided to work quickly together to reduce gender bias.’  I agree.

My grandmother is no longer here to ask for her opinion on what still needs to change but I know she was a great believer in conversation to spread the word, and to uncover new approaches. Perhaps, in her memory, if we talk about and share these issues widely we can continue that work. What would you like to see happen? What can each of us do to bring it about?

[1] ‘Silent strategies that could kill your business’ – William Buist 
[2] ‘Why Diversity Matters’ – Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton and Sara Prince 
[3]  ‘Forbes Insights – Innovation through diversity’
[4]  ‘The first comprehensive study on women in venture capital and their impact on female founders’ – Techcrunch
[5] ‘Conversational bias: female founders can get more funding’ – BusinessZone
[6] ‘BBC Pay: How much do its stars earn’ – BBC
[7] ‘Judicial Diversity Statistics 2017’ – UK Government 
[8] ‘Why you should do more than just talk about workplace diversity’ – FastCompany 
[9] ‘Women’s Leadership Study’ – KPMG
[10] Ginger Public Speaking


Join the conversation...

Written by: William Buist - all rights reserved.