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News & opinion

16 AUG 2019

Workplace diversity: Addressing unconscious bias

Mandy St John Davey, the UK national chairman of Women in Property, discusses why addressing unconscious bias is the first step to building a better workforce.

A few years ago, research staff at the University of Illinois found that people subconsciously assume that hurricanes with female names are less dangerous than the male variety, so they take fewer precautions. The result? Higher death rates.

Consider, then, the following scenario – a routine occurrence for many women in the workplace. A male colleague, equally as well qualified as his female counterpart, is selected to take the podium at a conference, or the lead on a major new project, or a place on the panel for an industry debate. Professionally they are equals, so why isn't she receiving the same opportunities? It is unlikely that any of these situations are premeditated; in fact, they probably haven't been given a second thought. Which, being simplistic, summarises unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is widely regarded as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to redressing gender, ethnicity and cultural imbalances. It can be found in all of us to varying degrees, so it is not surprising that it is one of the most important issues for business to recognise and manage, not least in the property and construction industry.

Psychologists tell us that our unconscious biases are simply down to our natural people preferences. Biologically we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. This is known as social categorisation: a process in which we sort people into groups, a gravitation towards the "safe" or familiar. This behaviour can lead to a tendency to appoint people in our own image, rather than those who are more diverse. The result can be seen in the "pale, male and stale" syndrome that is all too familiar in senior management.

RICS are driving the creation of a diverse workforce, fit for the future

The unconscious bias undercurrent also has an impact on visibility in the workplace, particularly for women, who are less likely to be selected to take that podium place, or the seat on the industry panel.

Yet it is widely understood that a diverse workforce is better for business. The 2018 McKinsey & Co report, Delivering through diversity, again cites greater profitability for those organisations with more women on their boards and with greater gender, ethnic and cultural diversity. Encouraging a diverse workforce is inextricably linked with tackling unconscious bias, so more and more businesses are training their staff, at all levels, to understand it.

Women in Property has been running workshops to help companies understand this for some years, combining business understanding, neuroscience and humour to create awareness of the thinking and behaviours that impact on unconscious bias and decision-making. Based on theory and science, it looks at how we make choices, form social rules and create structures that can unconsciously block development.

Unconscious bias is widely regarded as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to redressing gender, ethnicity and cultural imbalances.

This is related to culture change, which is never a swift task, so be realistic. Start by recognising and managing your biases, for example in appraisals and interviews. Look for the facts, be open to seeing and hearing what's there. Recognise how you're thinking about a situation: is your decision based on rationale or feelings? Work with colleagues to define role requirements, ensuring equity above difference. Consider the alienating language used in some job descriptions. Implement a mentoring programme – particularly for under-represented groups – and consider reverse mentoring for senior staff members who are set in their ways. Instead of relying on the usual suspects, give opportunities to others to present ideas or speak at events.

Steer clear of those hurricanes.

It is our responsibility to tackle barriers to entry and encourage a more diverse profession.

This article originally appeared in the Precision issue of Modus (Jul-Aug 2019). The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of RICS.


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