Tackling unconscious bias in the workplace

Friday, 26 October, 2018

This year’s Women in Water breakfast held in Adelaide, attracted more than 120 people who joined a discussion on the issues and impact of unconscious bias in the workplace.

Keynote speaker Arman Abrahimzadeh OAM from the Zahrah foundation, led the conversation with a powerful and confronting opening presentation on domestic violence.

Arman’s message raised the awareness that domestic violence begins with disrespect rather than violence and that addressing this disrespect across all aspects of our lives is critical to tackling our increasing domestic violence issues.

Following the presentation, MC Julia Grant from the Department for Environment and Water, opened the panel discussion on unconscious bias in the workplace. Panellist comprising of industry experts including Andrew Culley from Deloitte, Rachel Barratt from the Water Industry Alliance and Bronwyn Gillian from the University of Adelaide were invited to share their experiences and thoughts on the topic.

The consensus of the panel was that although there have been immense improvements over the years in relation to equal opportunities given to both men and women in the workplace, more must still be done to reach a more equitable workplace.

Bronwyn identified that the 50/50 gender balance in the world would suggest equal opportunities to all regardless of gender. There is, however, an unconscious bias that can exist in both men and women, meaning that the best talent is not always selected and opportunities are not given to these individuals to perform and progress.

Unconscious bias was acknowledged by Rachel as not only being an issue relating to how men perceive women, but how women perceive themselves and what they accept as societal norms.
An important question raised by the attendees was where are we likely to be in 5 years’ time? Gillian responded that we are likely to still be having the conversation around unconscious bias given where we have come from and how long it has taken to get to where we are today. Barratt believes we have yet to have enough of these conversations and stressed the importance of open dialogue.

Andrew Culley shared that Deloitte had an equal gender balanced workplace, although the female representation in leadership positions is only around 28%, and acknowledged that there is still much to do to rectify this. Andrew is a member of the Chiefs for Gender Equity – a group of leaders who have come together to raise all aspects of diversity, especially gender diversity, throughout South Australian workplaces and businesses to drive programs and change that creates awareness.

“It’s an issue for us because it’s an issue for our workforce. If we employ 50/50, then why don’t we have 50/50 in leadership positions? What talent are we losing out on because we’re not progressing females throughout the organisation at the same rate as we’re progressing males. It’s a problem and we are working through that and setting targets to make it happen,” said Andrew.

The panel was also asked what can we do to help make change? Abrahimzadeh identified that childhood experiences and family norms can create inappropriate expectations later in life, including the workforce. The key is to identify and alter these perceptions and expectations. Rachel also highlighted the need for women to seek male mentors in the workplace, to offer a different perspective.

A final comment from Gillian was the importance of both genders being engaged in the discussion of gender equity and being aware of unconscious bias in the workplace.

“There is an onus on women to change things, but we need men as well otherwise we’re not going to go anywhere.” said Bronwyn.

Related link
Avoiding the ‘merit’ Trap