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In Practice

Five Ways to Break Workplace Bias

Four women stand around a table working, with their heads down.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias, where the IWD community imagines a gender-equal world, free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

This is an important perspective as we enter the third year of a pandemic that has sounded alarm bells and threatened recent progress made on women’s equity and parity in the workplace.

Before the pandemic, in our Let’s Get Real About Equality: When Women Thrive 2020 Global Report, we observed that hiring, promotion and turnover rates for women had at last risen to levels comparable to men. But even then, it was evident there was still work to be done to eliminate bias and achieve overall organizational parity. As the 2020 report noted, we are still decades away from women reaching 50% representation in the workplace. With setbacks from COVID-19, we may find this process even slower.

Within this context, it’s time to zero in on and eliminate one of the important impediments to gender equality: hidden bias in underlying key talent management processes.

Getting beyond basic bias means first understanding the places in the talent and employee experience process where hidden bias can show up and then learning how to get around it. There are three areas where bias has the most impact on women’s equity in the workplace and specific actions companies can take to spot and mitigate bias.

What Is Hidden Bias?

Many companies have processes in place to help employees identify and address their own unconscious biases. But when we talk about how to break the bias in the workplace, we are not just talking about unconscious bias, but also about hidden bias.

What’s the difference?

Unconscious or implicit bias is the subliminal tendency humans have to favor certain people or groups of people based on learned stereotypes. Unconscious bias is hard to overcome, because, to some extent, it is hard-wired in humans as an anthropological social construct. Companies should make every effort to educate employees through ongoing training, but bias training alone cannot solve the problem.

However, reaching gender parity will require continued, systematic over-indexing of women in hiring.

By contrast, hidden bias is a systemic problem in your policies, processes and programs that exists when your infrastructure doesn’t sufficiently mitigate bias. To prevent hidden bias, we must create transparencies and guardrails to prevent biased individuals from taking actions that allow unconscious bias to creep in — and that don’t support a longer-term journey toward equity.

Three Places to Look for Hidden Bias

There are three areas where hidden bias can be most detrimental to women, holding companies back from creating parity and equity. To break the bias, we must look at:

Hiring 

Our Let’s Get Real report showed that organizations are getting better at bringing women into their talent pipelines at all levels. However, reaching gender parity will require continued, systematic over-indexing of women in hiring. Bias is still very present in the hiring process. Gender-balanced hiring slates are not always complemented by balanced slates of interviewers to evaluate candidates, and decision-makers are not always properly trained or held accountable for hiring decisions. 

Succession Planning

An over-focus on hiring and representation may prevent organizations from looking at their entire pipeline of talent: in-flow, up-flow and out-flow at all levels. Nonexistent or suboptimal succession planning leaves women less likely to advance, as female employees are less likely to be positioned and championed to succeed. 

Performance Management 

Another place hidden bias can be particularly harmful is in performance management. It is critical that reviews and evaluations remain unbiased because high ratings almost always lead to higher pay and a higher likelihood of promotion and are also associated, in most organizations, with higher retention. 

Five Steps Toward Breaking Bias

Knowing hidden bias might be lurking in these three important areas, how can companies identify and eliminate it? 

Examine and Track More Than Representation Data

One of the easiest ways to know if you have hidden bias is to do more advanced tracking to understand disparities in outcomes. Globally, organizations report low levels of tracking of key metrics by gender, with just 28% reviewing gender differences in performance ratings and 44% examining engagement survey responses by gender. Breaking the bias will come through examining data, identifying shortfalls and making changes to the underlying policies, processes and programs in those areas to ensure they are no longer hospitable to bias. Internal labor market (ILM) maps, which visualize the talent flows of the organization’s workforce across career levels, can help identify diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges; analytics can surface drivers or root causes of barriers; and external labor market data can add context to your situation.

Ramp Up Reporting and Transparency

Our Let’s Get Real report showed that only 50% of organizations globally are publicly documenting commitments to gender equality. Yet, it is clear that greater public disclosure and transparency can accelerate change — helping to uncover and eradicate hidden bias by holding decision-makers accountable for their choices.

Focus on Building a Balanced Talent Pipeline

Hard data from statistical modeling can empirically identify what it takes to be successful in your organization — and the data can be useful in developing and proactively managing the careers of female talent. Determine what actions need to be taken to build a strong pipeline that corrects for past shortfalls. This may include over-indexing of women in hiring and the integration of cultural competencies and inclusive behaviors into job descriptions and performance measures.

Identify Disparities in Performance Management

Preventing hidden bias and identifying disparities in performance management can be as simple as looking at data through the right lens. In 2020, only 28% of global organizations reported reviewing performance ratings by gender, and only 44% examined engagement survey responses by gender. Similarly, our recent Stepping up for Equity study shares that only 29% of companies are routinely reviewing performance management data by race/ethnicity. 

Limiting gender and racial bias in performance ratings can be done by implementing and communicating a well-defined performance management process. Manager training and other steps such as multiple raters and a robust calibration process may also limit bias. Mercer research has also linked annual unconscious bias training conducted prior to allocating performance ratings to reduced bias. 

Evaluate and Employ DEI Technology Solutions 

As we shared in the Let’s Get Real report, we believe DEI technology has the potential to be a disruptor to the structural biases that hide in our processes and behaviors. Applied correctly, technology can enable scalable, consistent decision-making while also alerting users to previously hidden patterns of bias — allowing leaders to measure and monitor the impact of DEI initiatives more effectively.

Unfortunately, when it comes to achieving equity, most organizations are up against the weight of history, as past imbalances in hiring, promotion and turnover have left them with an insufficient internal pipeline of women. If organizations want to correct this imbalance and move more rapidly toward true equity, they will first need to work on identifying, mitigating and breaking bias.

Angela Berg

Global Diversity and Inclusion Consulting Leader at Mercer

Based in Seattle, Angela Berg is Mercer’s global diversity and inclusion consulting leader, helping global organizations successfully support the diversity, inclusion and well-being of their employees. Angela has also held various leadership roles in Mercer’s Career business, including North America communication practice co-leader and west communication practice leader.

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