Organizational bias is killing opportunities for diversity — some institutions are changing that

Mark Henderson
October 25, 2017

We process information all day long.  If we had to think about each tiny decision carefully we would not be productive, so we make quick assumptions, often, to get through the day. These assumptions are often riddled with our individual “bias” and cause us to see the people around us through that lens.

 That guy is tall, he would be good at sports...

She is fat, she is lazy...

He is old, he doesn’t understand social media...

Unconscious bias is hurting your teams and creating blind spots in your organization. Bias takes the form of what researchers are calling micro-aggressions. They are both verbal and nonverbal behaviours that don’t make headlines like sexual assault in the workplace but their combined daily impact make our workplaces toxic and our employees sick. And they are why people leave their jobs or under-perform.

Research indicates that discrimination and gender bias is now much more subtle in the workplace. It leaves its victims confused and wondering if they are being too sensitive, or frustrated at not being able to point to one specific event that is causing them to not progress in an organization.

No women applied for the job therefore there are no qualified women…

There are not more women in STEM because it is too technical for them and not rewarding…

We had to have all men on the board, no women were nominated….

These micro-agressions create stereotypes and inequity in the workplace.

They also cause everything from depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, imposter syndrome, self-blame, migraines and eating disorders. These behaviours cause our best employees to leave because the best ones have options.

If you are not overly curious as to why an employee left or did not apply for a position you are missing a big opportunity to build a better workplace culture.

He was qualified but just didn’t fit in with us. He was a bit of a loner…

They hired me because I had unique ideas now all I hear is “that is not how we do things here”…

My manager celebrates my colleagues work more than mine because they both went to the same school and grew up in the same town…

We have read the data and we know diverse teams challenge stale ways of thinking and sharpen performance, but most workplaces have entrenched organizational thinking that is a barrier to progress.

Studies show that on average the top and the bottom of an organization is open to new ways of thinking and new approaches but is getting choked in the “frozen middle.” Directors, managers, supervisors all play important roles in engagement. Having a single person evaluate the work and manage an employee may not be the best approach.

Here is what the research tells us:

Women who negotiate in the same way a man does for a pay raise are viewed as aggressive but the man is not. Women are also three times more likely to be interrupted than men and both men and women value the experience of males more and offer them higher salaries.

I just don’t find her pleasant to work with…

Under-represented groups who advocate for better workplace diversity are devalued and are less likely to be promoted. They call that intersectionality. A polite term to indicate a harsh and ugly reality.  If you aren’t white, able bodied, born here etc. etc.…..your sense of not belonging is greater because you experience more exclusionary behaviour. Oh yeah, and men, especially white men who advocate for better workplace diversity, are celebrated.

We need to build workplace frameworks that work against our human nature to be biased and discriminate.

The MoreOB program, created by Dr. Kenneth Milne, a Canadian obstetrician-gynecologist, was successful in doing just that. Delivering babies is a high stress environment and litigious. Communication between the surgeons and nurses was often strained.

Hugely successful, the program is a framework to eliminate a culture of blame and improving team performance by working on understanding each position's role and duties. Outcomes, good and bad, were discussed in an open trusting environment to solve the procedural issue to ensure continuous improvement. The program is based on elite work environments that must have zero errors, such as air traffic controllers.

McMaster University provost, David Wilkinson, led an initiative to identify and correct an imbalance between the pay of men and women faculty members. Through an evidenced-based approach he was able to identify an equity issue in his institution.

Waterloo University’s HeforShe Impact 10x10x10 campaign created firm targets for gender equity and is supported by its president.

Setting goals, measuring progress, introducing procedures for blind reviews of resumes for recruitment and making workplace culture a key performance indicator are some examples of gold standards.

The International High Performance Computing Summer School conducted a formal evaluation of its recruitment practices. Bias was found to be harming the ability of women to be selected as candidates. Introducing a blind recruitment process and other changes to the intake form resulted in a 60% increase in women participants.

Attracting talent is one thing, keeping them engaged takes more than a diversity policy or a president speaking at a conference. It requires appropriate procedures that are proven to eliminate discrimination and overcome bias in the workplace. Hiring, firing, promoting, reviewing are all fraught with opportunities to apply bias. Building appropriate procedures will eliminate the impact of poor managers or team leads by diluting the power of one over many.

The universities of McMaster and Waterloo should be applauded for their transparency. They defined the problem openly, put procedures in place to reduce inequity and continue to measure progress going forward.

Kelly Nolan is co-founder the Talent Strategy Institute, an organization that assists with diversity and inclusion assessments, engagement and recruitment strategies, training, workshops and coaching.

Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.