Spot the difference: how unconscious gender bias leads to missed opportunities

Looking the part: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is frequently surrounded by male leaders. AAP

There is a scene in the film Beautiful People set in London during the 1993 Balkan war where a young female doctor brings home a recently arrived refugee to her conservative upper class family.

There is no back-story - as viewers we discover the refugee through the lens of the dynamics at the dinner table. While the family is depicted as patronising snobs, the interchange conspires to depict the refugee as an unsophisticated, uneducated, simpleton - that is, until he sits down to deliver a masterful piano rendition.

There is a “aha” moment when the family and audience is catapulted out of their unexamined stereotypical assumptions to view this person - and perhaps others like him - through a new lens.

When it comes to women in leadership, business has not as yet had its “aha” moment. Gender stereotyping continues despite a significant body of research evidence that links gender diverse boards and senior executive teams with improved performance on both financial and non-financial dimensions of business excellence.

Study after study finds that the exclusion of women from higher paying positions with higher promotional opportunities is based on discriminatory decisions based on gender bias.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been described as “not looking like a leader”. Here’s a clue why. AAP

According to research by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), the key reason for the 17% gender pay differential costing $93 billion a year in lost productivity is because one is born a woman.

The look and feel of leadership still remains firmly male, as in ‘think leader, think male’. As one commentator summed it up during the last election campaign, “Julia might have won the debate but Tony Abbott looks like a leader”.

It is this ‘mental economy’ that informs the reality of workplace dynamics and sees female participation rates at senior levels dishearteningly low. According to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) statistics, women represent only 3% of CEOs, 2.5% of board chairs, 14.0% of board seats and 8% of executive management roles and hold just 7% of top earner positions in companies on the Australian Stock Exchange. The boards of 64 companies of the ASX 200 are still all male.

Deeply entrenched cultural beliefs, which prescribe leadership as a male domain lie at the heart of why men are disproportionally chosen ahead of women for leadership roles.

A 2011 McKinsey & Company survey adds to the body of research that identifies entrenched cultural beliefs as the most powerful of all forces holding women back.

The report concludes the reasons women are excluded has little do with rational reality and much to do with discrimination that is unwritten, unofficial, subtle, often unconscious, but deeply embedded in our organisational systems and cultures.

A new report by Northwestern University, Chicago, published in theAmerican Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin shows that both men and women still see women as being less qualified or less “natural” in leadership roles.

Women in leadership may face a double bind where the same behaviour that confers status on men makes them unpopular. AAP

Perceptions of male and female characteristics and their relevance to successful business performance undermine a rational assessment of talent, resulting in recruitment and promotion decisions that are biased in favour of men.

The same behaviours that raise a man’s status can make a woman less popular. Women who negotiate hard and advocate for themselves do not get very far according to a 2011 Catalyst study. When women display ambition they risk the backlash of being seen as aggressive and masculine; yet if they are collaborative and communal they are viewed as weak. Women face the classic double bind.

The exclusion of women from leadership positions on the basis of discrimination that is unwritten, unofficial, subtle, and often unconscious, is a concern. Unchecked and unexamined it leads to a decision-making process that is suboptimal - one in which judgement is blind to logic and facts in the face of powerful internal forces driving fear, anxiety, habit and a wish to avoid reality.

What cannot be avoided is the economic reality of a climate of increasing competition, declining productivity and a shortage of high-level executive talent.

Organisations that exclude women face the risk of a crisis in talent retention and a brain drain to more female friendly environments. Moreover, while Australian business continues to ignore a proven talent pool engagement with economic reform will remain shallow.

The 2009 Report Management Matters – “Just How productive are we?” finds Australian business lacks the management and leadership capability to drive productivity reform.

Sadly, some business leaders are yet to be convinced of the business case for gender diversity. There remains a lingering mindset that views the mandates of business as in conflict with gender diversity.

A recent media analysis of 23 randomly selected annual reports indicates that some companies are resisting compliance with ASX corporate guidelines, citing more pressing issues including mergers and acquisitions and operational challenges.

The ASX Corporate Governance Council’s revised principles and recommendations were announced in response to the parlous state of women’s representation at board and senior executive level.

Managing for success in today’s business environment is a complex multifaceted endeavour requiring excellence on all dimensions of a business scorecard. Business can ill-afford to put talent management strategies on hold and ignore the pool of females.

Business leaders who are actively engaging female talent at the top can have a significant role to play in extolling the benefits of being early adopters, of challenging deeply held assumptions that have a propensity to be heightened in times of economic insecurity, and in contributing to a civil and sustainable economy underpinned by equality of opportunity and the rewarding of excellence irrespective of how it is packaged.