How Unconscious Bias in the Workplace Holds Women Back—and What You Can Do About It

The granddaddy of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, warns that organizations who lag behind in recruiting women to leadership roles are, to their detriment, ignoring critical factors in their own success. That’s because women have some distinct leadership advantages over men, according to a study of 55,000 men and women using the famed Emotional and Social Competence Inventory. So why are women so underrepresented in leadership positions? One major reason is unconscious bias in the workplace.

A 2010 study by researchers in Sweden perfectly illustrates unconscious bias and how it can affect women’s success. In the study, the researchers found that government venture capitalists (VCs) used wildly different language to describe young male and young female entrepreneurs. While male entrepreneurs were often described as assertive, innovative, competent, experienced, and knowledgeable, the venture capitalists questioned female entrepreneurs’ credibility, trustworthiness, experience, and knowledge. Whereas young men were considered “promising,” young women were described as “inexperienced.”

Now, probably, if you asked these VCs point blank, face-to-face, every one them would undoubtedly agree that women entrepreneurs are just as capable as their male counterparts. But their unconscious biases are laid bare in this study, whose initial aim was to study financial decision-making and help the group of VCs develop their process. But as 36 hours of recordings were transcribed into 210 pages, the researchers found gendered discourse to be “clear and abundant,” and they took a closer look.

Not surprisingly, the research found that although one-third of businesses in Sweden are owned and run by women, as few as 13 percent of women-owned businesses receive government funding, the bulk of it going to male entrepreneurs. Furthermore, women entrepreneurs were only awarded, on average, 25 percent of the amount they applied for, while male entrepreneurs were awarded, on average, 52 percent of what they requested.

This unconscious bias isn’t unique to Sweden, and it’s certainly not unique to government organizations. The danger of unconscious bias is that it can really do a number on gender diversity in the workplace, particularly among leadership. An enormous body of research shows that the more diverse a team, the better the outcomes. Still, 57 percent of respondents in the Momentum4 2019 Women in Leadership Survey said that there were fewer than five females occupying leadership roles in their workplace.

The International Labour Organization maintains that unconscious gender bias is a significant barrier to women’s career advancement, in part due to the fact that many women internalize these negative perceptions robbing them of self-confidence. And in fact, 75 percent of women in the Momentum4 report agree that a lack of confidence is the main psychological factor holding them back from applying for higher positions within the organization.

So, how can an organization or individual address unconscious biases? And how can women overcome the damning effects of unconscious bias and secure senior positions within the organization? The answers lie in increasing the emotional intelligence of the individual and the organization. Here are four ways to improve emotional intelligence to fight or overcome unconscious bias in the workplace.

1. Increase self-awareness.

Emotional intelligence is all about increasing self-awareness: Awareness of your emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and why you feel and do the things you feel and do. Self-awareness surrounding your own biases helps you question unconscious beliefs (such as that women are less capable than men) and replace them with beliefs that align with reality.

Women struggling against unconscious bias in the workplace can benefit from greater self-awareness to prevent others’ biases from affecting their confidence level and dictating what senior positions they apply for.

2. Recognize patterns.

We all have patterns of behavior that are driven by our emotions. Becoming more self-aware helps us recognize emotional, thought, and behavioral patterns that perpetuate unconscious bias and which may lead women to retreat when faced with others’ biases. Recognizing patterns and consciously changing those that are problematic can you help fight unconscious bias at work.

3. Improve self-management.

Improving your ability to manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors through increased emotional intelligence helps you deal with your own unconscious biases and those of others. Self-management helps you improve your comfort level with people who are different from you, and it helps you deal with the frustration, fear, and anger that the unconscious biases of others can cause. Improving your self-management skills helps you reframe negative or exaggerated self-talk that often crops up when you’re challenged by unconscious bias in the workplace.

4. Increase empathy.

Increasing your level of empathy helps you move beyond the initial assumptions you may have about a person or a group of people. Empathy is central to embracing differences and keeping your unconscious biases from affecting your decisions. When you deal with people empathetically, you’re looking at the whole person. You’re open to alternative interpretations concerning their behaviors, and you can put yourself in their shoes. Doing so helps you correct your own biases, and it can help you counteract others’ unconscious biases.

H2H Coaching Knows Emotional Intelligence

H2H Coaching Co. focuses on helping individuals and teams develop higher emotional intelligence, which goes a long way toward reducing unconscious bias in the workplace and promoting greater diversity in a company’s leadership team. Our comprehensive assessments help you identify your (or your team’s) key strengths and weaknesses, and our coaching sessions help you capitalize on your strong suits and develop the areas in which you struggle. Contact us today, and let us customize a transformative program for you.