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Employer Awareness of Implicit Gender Bias in the Workplace

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The topic of sex discrimination in the workplace has been heavily researched, discussed, and frequently litigated, particularly in the era of the #metoo movement. Today, employers are more aware of words and actions that should be avoided to diminish or prevent sex discrimination in order to limit liability. Most employers have taken measures to educate their employees on sexual discrimination and have updated their employee handbooks to include anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. As a result, the perception is that sexual bias is becoming a vestige of the past. The reality, however, is that while training and education may diminish overt sex discrimination, it can never completely eradicate the decades of implicit bias engrained in a person's subconscious. If employers desire to permanently change the way employees interact with one another in the workplace, they need to recognize and address the root of the problem. There are many different kinds of bias, but this article is focused on gender.

What exactly is implicit bias? It is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group based on unconscious thoughts, beliefs, feelings or stereotypes. Implicit bias is fueled by cultural stereotypes, which are widely-held, oversimplified images or ideas of a particular type of person or thing. Some of these antiquated tropes include: the idea that women are not good at math or science, men are always the "breadwinners," and women are always good homemakers. These unconscious biases are adopted and engrained at an early age and can be influenced by a person's environment or upbringing. Exposure to certain cultural influences such as television programs, movies, local politics, and the opinions of family, friends, and colleagues can perpetuate these ideas. Individuals can harbor unconscious bias even if they consciously believe that bias or discrimination is wrong.

How does this translate to implicit gender bias in the workplace? Interestingly, it often occurs when male supervisors act based on their benign natural or learned instinct to be the female protector. For example, a male supervisor may not be inclined to send a qualified female employee to an on-location assignment in a remote or dangerous location so as not to jeopardize her safety. Or, a male supervisor may decide not to appoint a qualified female employee to manage a specific project if he knows or believes that the other male employees assigned to the project would not listen to directions given by a woman, thereby creating undue difficulty and stress for her and potentially derailing the project. While the male managers may believe they are acting in the best interests of the female employees (and perhaps they are in certain circumstances), they should carefully weigh this perspective against hindering female career growth and development by not providing them with the same opportunities as male colleagues, which serve the basis for promotions, bonuses, recognition, and other incentives. This perpetuates the cycle of male-dominated management and inhibits gender diversity in administration and female professional development.

It is important for employers to tackle gender bias to maximize the company's full potential. Business reasons to eliminate gender bias include: gender diverse teams are more focused and productive; the quantity and quality of work increases; there is an influx of new ideas and different approaches for problem-solving strategies; gender heterogynous authorship teams are more likely cited in publications than those produced by gender-uniform authorship teams; the morale and work environment improves leading to increased productivity, pride in work product, loyalty to the employer, and retention of valuable employees; and it creates a viable defense if litigation arises and may decrease employee claims.

Although it is unrealistic to believe that all forms of gender bias and discrimination can be eradicated from the workplace, if employers can recognize the implicit biases harbored by their employees and take appropriate action to counteract those subconscious motivators, it will go a long way to create a harmonious environment for employees, improve gender diversity in management, positively impact the company's bottom line, and limit the company's exposure to future litigation.

To learn more about implementing anti-discrimination training and policies to combat implicit bias in the workplace, contact Catherine Loeffler.

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