By Eve Vlemincx.
Last week, during a coffee chat, a managing partner boldly told me that gender and diversity are not issues within their office. "We simply recruit the best candidate, regardless of whether they are male or female; that doesn't matter to us."
An ostensibly fair approach, yet... How often do we like to think that we are fair while such reasoning overlooks the reality of gender biases and unintentionally perpetuates them. Biases inevitably influence our behavior unless we actively implement processes to counteract their effects. Mere intention is by no means sufficient, quite the contrary.
1. Unconscious biases:
Unconscious biases are our silent influencers. The notion of a meritocracy, where candidates are solely evaluated based on their qualifications and skills, is an ideal that many strive for, but it quickly ignores the powerful influence of biases that shape our perceptions and decisions. This happens even in situations where we believe ourselves to be objective.
1.1. Subtlety of biases:
We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.
Biases are deceptively subtle. Unconsciously, they become integral parts of every hiring process. Even when we aim to select the 'best candidate,' our personal preferences unconsciously seep into our assessment, turning objectivity into subjectivity. Without clear and objective standards for what 'the best' means, a distorted image emerges based on preexisting notions of which qualities are deemed valuable. This puts candidates from different backgrounds at risk of being overlooked simply because their strengths don't align with the dominant norms within the industry or organization.
1.2. The echo chamber effect:
A homogeneous workplace can inadvertently become an echo chamber of similar opinions. When an office claims that gender diversity isn't a problem, it might actually indicate a lack of exposure to alternative viewpoints, leading to an environment where diversity and inclusion struggle to take root.
1.3. Affinity bias (in-group bias):
Affinity bias is the tendency to favor those who share a similar background or characteristics and shapes hiring decisions. Without actively addressing our biases, we quickly fall into a cycle of recruiting candidates who fit the current mold and resemble ourselves. This hinders the infusion of new, divergent, and fresh ideas.
2. A proactive approach:
To combat the influence of unconscious biases and pave the way for true gender equality, a good starting point is recognizing that a 'meritocracy' mindset isn't enough. Instead, we must actively implement mechanisms to counter the impact of our biases.
Here are some steps that can be taken to address biases:
2.1. Awareness training on biases:
Training about unconscious biases, their impact, and how to reduce them. Creating awareness is the first step toward promoting a more inclusive hiring process.
2.2. Clear and standardized criteria:
Establish clear criteria for evaluating candidates based on job-related skills and qualifications. This minimizes room for subjective assessments.
2.3. Diverse hiring panels:
Pay attention to who sits on the hiring panel. Different perspectives lead to more balanced evaluations and reduce the impact of biases.
2.4. Anonymous application review:
Implement strategies for blind hiring where feasible, such as removing personally identifiable information from resumes. This can ensure that initial selection is more qualification-based. It's understood that this measure alone will not be sufficient as anonymity can't be maintained in later stages.
2.5. Process optimization and ongoing monitoring:
Regularly analyze hiring data and processes, actively seeking gaps where biases might still creep in. Analyze the data for continuous improvement.
Ignorance can be a bliss.
The managing partner's assertion that gender was never an issue might stem from a sincere belief in their unbiased approach. However, the hidden biases embedded in human psychology cannot be disregarded. True gender equality requires a comprehensive effort to challenge these biases, acknowledge the limitations of a simple meritocracy, and actively address underlying biases.
While the goal of hiring the "best candidate" remains crucial, it must be coupled with processes and systems that reduce unconscious biases. By fostering an environment of awareness, openness, and accountability, organizations can transform their hiring practices from unintentionally biased to truly inclusive, choosing the best candidates based on their skills and qualifications, regardless of gender.
About the Author Eve Vlemincx is a strategic advisor with expertise in a wide array of areas including legal digital transformation, innovation and leadership. She serves as an advisory council member for Harvard Business Review and is a Course Facilitator at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Eve is highly sought after as a keynote speaker and guest lecturer in various professional settings. Notably, she has been honored as a five-time recipient of the Stanford GSB LEAD Award.
Operating at the dynamic intersection of legal and business, Eve holds certifications from esteemed institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, Kellogg and Stanford Graduate School of Business. Additionally, she brings substantial experience as a seasoned lawyer specializing in corporate law and restructurings.
Eve's guiding philosophy is centered on working smarter, not harder, as she helps individuals and organizations navigate the complexities of today's rapidly evolving landscape.