Would you hire me if you couldn’t see me?

Alison Kay,

Global Vice Chair - Industry EY

More about the author

As Global Vice Chair of Industry, Alison’s role is to help businesses navigate disruption across industry sectors and help balance between growth, profit and trust.  She joined EY in 2007 with a strong background in advisory and utilities. 

Unconscious bias is a major stumbling block for gender equality that we can all do something about, says Alison Kay, Global Vice Chair of Industry EY

Person holding up paper smiling face over their face

Have you heard the story about the violin behind the curtain? Back in the 1970s, the number of women in the top US orchestras was a mere 5%. Questions were asked, and they decided to conduct blind auditions in which candidates performed behind a curtain.

To their surprise, they found that blind auditions doubled the number of women advancing to the final stages and significantly increased the likelihood of a woman being selected. Women now represent 25% to 30% of these orchestras today, with much credit given to removing gender from the equation.

Is this gender bias unique to the world of music?

In short, no. Gender bias is everywhere, and much of it unconscious. There's a multitude of research I could cite but I'll just mention two examples:

  • The Howard/Heidi case study, developed at Harvard and used by a number of business schools. Students asked to read a case study attributed to “Howard Roizen” rate him as highly competent and effective, someone they like and would be willing to work with. When the identical details are assigned to “Heidi Roizen”, however, the same students find her competent and effective but do not like or want to work with her.
  • Student evaluations. Science faculty were asked to evaluate student applications that included the same details but were randomly assigned a male or female name. Male candidates were rated as much more competent and worthy of hiring than the (identical) female candidates.   

We think we're being fair and objective but we're not.

Why does this happen? Because we all have biases. I have them. You have them. Men and women. Young and old. From every ethnicity and walk of life. Our experiences shape us and can't help but influence us. We make snap decisions – not just about men and women, but about all sorts of things.

We think we're being fair and objective but we're not.

What can be done about unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a major stumbling block for gender equality that we can all do something about. When companies address it, results follows.

For instance, take EY's decision to remove all academic and education details from our trainee application process, and introduce a blind CV policy to reduce unconscious bias. These steps in 2015 helped us to broaden our talent pool, with a 10% increase in the number of recruits from state schools. What's more, 18% of the talented graduates and students we hired in 2016 wouldn't have been able to apply under the previous policy.

I often hear it argued that technology advancements will create a net negative effect for women, but I'm more optimistic. I think artificial intelligence could help to reduce bias.

In time, it may be that developments like artificial intelligence (AI) actually help to reduce bias. I often hear it argued that technology advancements will create a net negative effect for women, but I'm more optimistic. It is true that automation will make inroads on jobs that women represent a high percentage of, such as office and administration, and fewer women study and work in STEM areas where new jobs will be created.

But on the flip side, AI and automation use pre-set rules and criteria, which could improve objectivity. It could stop talented candidates from being overlooked for jobs they are qualified and able to do well because they don't fit with a promotion panel's unconscious biases regarding gender, race, disability, age, etc.

Taking bold action on bias

8 March 2017 is International Women's Day. The theme this year is: be bold for change. And that's important because while there is inequality, we need to do more than talk about it. We need to do something. We need to take action.

It's worth stating that being bold doesn't necessarily mean huge, sweeping change. Sometimes that's not in our power. Small steps can also add up to big change. 

Gender inequality is a complex issue – solving it will involve lots of interconnected pieces. Positive steps include creating a culture that understands and values the value of diversity. Encouraging both men and women to sponsor and mentor women. Training to identify unconscious bias and develop strategies to overcome it. Highlighting female role models. Flexible working for all employees.

Let's be bold in 2017. Let's identify our biases and refuse to be ruled by them.

Last year I took a pledge to increase the number of women in the pipeline at EY. It's something I continue to work on. When I review lists of candidates for up and coming positions, I challenge my colleagues if there isn't a female on that list. Because they're there – often getting on with their work instead of shouting about it – and it's in actions like this, in companies across the UK and other countries that will effect real change. We all have a role to play.

So let's be bold in 2017. Let's identify our biases and refuse to be ruled by them. Because teams that challenge from multiple points of view, and think through problems differently, deliver better results.

 

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Join the conversation for this year’s International Women’s Day celebration by going to #BeBoldForChange.