Article: Stereotyping & unconscious bias in organizations

Employee Engagement

Stereotyping & unconscious bias in organizations

Organizations claim to understand and deal effectively with unconscious biases and workplace stereotypes. But the truth is that unconscious bias and stereotypes are the fundamental nature of our society and the conditioning which affects decision-making in all spheres of life.
Stereotyping & unconscious bias in organizations

Lately, there has been a lot of conversation around gender inclusion. Organizations, big or small, have come ahead in a big way and expressed their allegiance towards equity and equality of gender in the organizations. Work from home concept due to the pandemic added more fuel to these conversations as the organizations spoke about making WFH an accepted phenomenon and a way to get more and more women back to the workplace and senior roles. 

Organizations claim to understand and deal effectively with unconscious biases and workplace stereotypes. But the truth is that unconscious bias and stereotypes are the fundamental nature of our society and the conditioning which affects decision-making in all spheres of life. And this is not a phenomenon displayed by men alone. Women, who make it to the top, also have these biases and operate with the same principles and mindset. The fact is that it’s not just men but also women at the top who are inhibiting the re-entry of women into the workplace and their movement to senior roles and positions. The unconscious biases and stereotypes are so deeply embedded in our minds that we just cannot do away with them. 

Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair in response to certain preconceived notions or stereotypes. As a result of unconscious biases, certain people benefit, while others are penalized. Teachers and parents are the first influencers and play a critical role in building and nurturing stereotypes. Stereotypical expectations reflect existing differences and impact the way men and women define themselves and are treated by others. There is no denying that there are differences between men and women. The question, however, is to what extent these differences reflect the way men and women essentially are, and to what extent they result from how we think men and women differ from each other because of our stereotypes. We falsely perceive differences to be more than similarities. 

When it comes to stereotyping, a very dangerous stereotype is one where the educated assume that it is uneducated who are prone to using stereotypes. I reject this idea. I believe the more significant problem in stereotyping is the so-called educated. Look at history and look around the world. Many problems associated with stereotyping have emerged out of developed nations, educated communities, and higher classes and castes. But, stereotyping by the educated poses a more significant problem because such stereotyping is often camouflaged as well-founded and not without reason. The only thing more detrimental than a stereotype is a stereotype that is qualified as reasoned. You will hear the following statement all the time-

  • A successful female employee is an aggressive woman. 
  • If she has a mind of her own, she is stubborn.
  • An affluent female employee is spending the generosity of her successful husband. 
  • An attractive female employee talking to a male colleague has a questionable character. 
  • She is divorced because she is not adaptive and is aggressive.
  • She won’t be able to travel or take higher roles as she is a single mother. 
  • He is sensitive like a woman. 
  • Oh, that group of women must be gossiping!

Well, we all hear this all the time. These stereotypes become worse in the presence of unconscious biases. Some of the most common unconscious biases in an organization are affinity bias or similarity bias, which is the tendency of people to connect with those who share similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds. These impact recruitments and team formations. Other common biases affecting the workplace are confirmation bias and attribution bias. Confirmation bias is the inclination to conclude a situation or person based on personal desires, beliefs, and prejudices rather than on unbiased merit. Attribution bias is a phenomenon where we try to make sense of or judge a person’s behavior based on prior observations and interactions. This could be detrimental when it operates with affinity bias. Though decisions are made in groups, confirmation bias or the tendency people have to act similar to the people around them regardless of their personal beliefs or idiosyncrasies just tilt the organization towards decisions laden with stereotypes and personal attributions. These biases are not only based on formal interactions but also informal settings. After office parties, interactions, and the formation of boy’s clubs impact these perceptions. Due to social roles and responsibilities, women may not be a part of these informal groups. Due to unconscious biases and stereotypes, men and women who can make small conversations, network around, and display sycophancy are benefitted.

To understand stereotyping, it is necessary to pay attention to its triangular nature. A stereotype is closely related to prejudice, which is closely related to discrimination, reinforcing a stereotype. A stereotype is the assignment of an attribute to a group. A prejudice determines whether the attribute is desirable or undesirable, and discrimination is acting based on these prejudices. The problem with an educated mind is that it traverses this triangle with misappropriated confidence. Therefore, unless we consciously look at our long learned stereotypes as individuals, the organizations will continue to discriminate consciously or subconsciously. 

So, this is more complex than we think or know. Unless organizations develop an appetitive to recognize these stereotypes, accept them and work together to change them, we cannot move the needle much.  We can be happy to feel that we moved the needle, but another way of looking at it is still a lot more to go.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Culture, Employee Relations, #GuestArticle

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