A CEO’s guide to uncovering unconscious gender bias that harms the leadership pipeline

Unconscious gender bias is a hot topic in business. Unfortunately, these discussions can get heated and lead to finger-pointing, misunderstandings and an unhelpful battle of the sexes. I won’t do that here. Instead, I want to talk about what unconscious gender bias is, what it shows up as and how business leaders can get help solving leadership pipeline problems.

What is unconscious gender bias?

In general, people prefer their own group vs another. You see this all the time in sports—as any fans of the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears could tell you. In terms of gender in the workplace, people tend to be more comfortable with what they know. Which means—in general and perhaps only unconsciously—a man will be more comfortable with other men. This comfort with one’s own ‘in-group’ tends to reinforce the makeup of that group over time.

All this to say—we’re comfortable with what we know. That’s fine.

But in the C-suite, there’s mounting evidence that indicates having more women at the table is a sound fiscal decision.

“Gender-diverse business units have better financial outcomes than those dominated by one gender. In a retail company, gender-diverse business units have a 14% higher average comparable revenue than their less-diverse counterparts. In a hospitality company, gender-diverse business units have 19% higher average quarterly net profit than their less-diverse counterparts.”

LeanIn Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace, 2016

To reap the business benefits associated with having more women on the executive team and/or board of directors, you must first figure out if you’ve got a problem. There are some simple ways to recognize unconscious gender bias happening in your business.

What unconscious gender bias looks like in business

If you’re only looking for obvious examples out of the Mad Men playbook, you’ll probably miss some important clues. Instead, look at the big picture and jot down your observations. No judgment—this is simply a current-state analysis.

4 indications of unconscious gender bias in the workplace:

1. There are lots of women on the front-line and in middle-management but a significantly fewer percentage of women in senior leadership roles.

2. Men and women in the same roles with equal performance are compensated differently.

3. There’s no system in place for identifying leadership potential and nurturing top talent.

4. There aren’t many women at the social events where business relationships are built.

If you’re still reading, I’ll guess you’ve noticed a lack of diversity on your leadership team. That’s actually great news—because it means you can now start building a stronger leadership pipeline of competent men and women.

But what’s next?

Because unconscious gender bias is such a hot topic, it can be difficult to talk about around the leadership table. Remember that opening a discussion about unconscious gender bias in your organization isn’t about filling quotas so 50% of your executives are women.

It’s about creating a system that’s good at recognizing leadership potential and nurturing it to greatness. This means you can be confident about C-suite hiring decisions because you’ve done the work to fill your candidate pool exclusively with A+ candidates, male and female.

But you can’t do this work alone. Instead, consider bringing in a neutral third party to facilitate these discussions and help you and your team make a positive plan to address leadership pipeline challenges.

5 ways an executive coach can help your organization address unconscious gender bias:

1. Run a business diagnostic – This includes looking at the mix of men and women at all levels of the organization, understanding salary processes and doing anonymous 360 reviews to get an honest feel for your organizational culture.

2. Develop a strategy to address your pressing issues – After the diagnostic, you’ll see where you are and where you want to be. You’ll then get the tools and map to bridge that gap.

3. Fortify your leadership pipeline – A good coach shows your leadership team how to identify leadership potential in all areas of your organization, including places you never thought to look.

4. Support a culture of mentorship – No one becomes an effective and respected leader without guidance but sometimes we forget this. A coach can help you put mentorship back where it belongs—on your business priority list.

5. Hire the right leaders, consciously – The process of filling your leadership roles, based on your needs and business objectives may need to change if you’re not getting the results you want. A trusted advisor can help you make the right changes at the right pace.

Most organizations believe in the value of developing effective leaders from within. But unconsciously missing a huge pool of star talent puts any business at risk, culturally and financially. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.

I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.

WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: Coaching, Networking, Peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.

Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.

To discover more about the WIL Empowered program, visit the website.

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