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Opinion: unconscious bias is holding women back

Author: Felicity Menzies | Date: 28 Oct 2015

It’s time to get serious about the business case for gender diversity, says Felicity Menzies

After the Singapore Institute of Directors’ 2015 survey revealed that half of boards have no women on their team – and a third have only one – several directors cited a lack of credible applicants as the reason for the deficit of female board directors.

Many organisations blame a lack of viable female candidates for board positions, even in markets such as Singapore, which has relatively high overall female workforce participation rates. Rather than facing a lack of qualified female talent, it’s more likely that recruiters and HR professionals tasked with board appointments hold biased perceptions of the characteristics and traits that define effective leadership.

Global studies have shown that implicit leadership prototypes – the mental representations that we have in our minds of what makes an effective leader – are gender-biased. Stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits are more readily endorsed as contributing to effective leadership than characteristically ‘feminine’ traits. Moving the needle on gender diversity at leadership levels is very difficult because those preferences are often unconscious, affecting judgements and decision-making without someone even being aware of their influence.

Cross-cultural studies have also shown that, although in-group bias (our tendency to favour members of social groups to which we belong) is universal, members of Asian societies have an increased tendency to favour in-group members. In other words, the ‘boys’ club’ is possibly stronger in an Asian context. This can exacerbate the negative implications of unconscious bias for the selection and promotion of female talent to leadership positions. Foreign female talent may be penalised to a greater extent by local organisations, because those women lie even further outside the boundaries of the in-group.

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy solution to these challenges. Local businesses that are serious about leveraging the benefits of gender diversity at board level for competitive advantage must commit to a multifaceted approach. At a minimum, organisations must invest in unconscious bias training, establish mentoring programmes for female talent and set gender diversity targets to which leaders and managers are held accountable.

Initiatives similar to Japan’s legislated gender targets to raise the percentage of female managers in large private and public companies – which require organisations to disclose their gender diversity numbers at management level – may help to accelerate change in Singapore where conformity to social norms is similarly valued.

One practical step HR professionals can take in driving commitment to diversity and inclusion at the top level is to build a strong case for diversity’s role in helping an organisation meet its business goals. HR practitioners should forcefully and deliberately link diversity and inclusion initiatives and investment to business strategy, and track and measure return on investment.

Companies that are experiencing difficulties accessing viable candidates could contact DiversityDirectory Asia Pacific, a non-profit organisation that maintains a register of qualified, board-ready females seeking appointment.

Successful diversity management requires leaders who personally support diversity and inclusion. The best way of ensuring this commitment is to provide leaders with a strong business case for diversity, and to measure the results of diversity and inclusion programmes.

Singapore-based Felicity Menzies is a principal consultant at Culture Plus Consulting, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in cultural intelligence.

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