Skip to content
Woman Smiling
Arrow left Resources

Recognizing and Overcoming Biases in the Workplace: How unconscious biases hold women back and impact business

We recently hosted our second annual “Day of Understanding,” featuring conversations on important Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) topics for our staff from our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). The event was a phenomenal success and worked to continue to foster a respectful and welcoming workplace for all at The Judge Group.

Our Women’s Empowerment (WE) group presented biases in the workplace faced by everyone, be it gender, race, gender identity, or age biases. While biases may be hard to overcome, the first step is recognizing what biases we have and identifying them when we might be thinking or acting biasedly. The biases WE presented impact women disproportionately in the workplace and hold them back from leadership roles.

What is an unconscious bias?

There are several different forms of bias. However, unconscious biases are the most common. Our WE group defined unconscious biases as “an inherent or learned stereotype about people that everyone forms without realizing.” Unconscious biases are developed in the back of our minds, largely influenced by our environment and the beliefs of those we trust, such as our parents. However, unconscious biases can also be entirely fabricated based on erroneous assumptions about others.

Women in the workplace suffer a variety of biases based on stereotypes about women directed toward them. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) found in a study that “Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that [managers and coworkers] are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise.”1 This connection poses a serious hurdle for women who would like to advance in their careers. Some of the main biases they face are:

  1. Performance/Attribution Bias: Because it is often determined women are less competent than men, women are not given credit for successes and are often blamed for failures.
  2. Likability Bias: Women often feel they must be feminine and nice to be liked, but when liked, they often aren’t taken seriously. Whereas, if the woman is seen as being aggressive or abrasive, she is unliked, and coworkers feel she should be nicer.
  3. Maternal Bias: Women are often perceived as less committed, over-extended, and not serious about their careers when they have or begin to have children.
  4. Affinity and Double Discrimination Bias: Also called like-likes-like, this bias refers to our tendency to gravitate toward people similar to ourselves. That might mean hiring or promoting someone who shares the same race, gender, age, or educational background.2

Biases hold women back from leadership roles

Imagine you (a female) worked at a company for a year, and over that year, you achieved many great things, worked with teams on several critical projects, and you contributed to the growth of the company. At your annual review, all of the feedback your manager (a male) gives you is vague and doesn’t suggest any areas of improvement or development. You walk away from the review confused and wondering how you can possibly grow if you’re not given direction.

This sounds ridiculous, right?

Unfortunately, the HBR study found that 57% of reviews for women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (43%). Comments such as “You had a great year” dominated women’s reviews, providing no insight into how to grow or develop their knowledge and skills. Comparatively, 60% of reviews for men included developmental feedback linked to business outcomes, whereas only 40% of women’s reviews did the same thing.

Furthermore, 76% of references to being “too aggressive” in communication style happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.3 This statistic speaks to a specific bias women face – likeability bias. If women are perceived as aggressive, they are less likely to be considered for leadership roles as they are seen as too commandeering. Conversely, women who are likable and able to work well with others often experience attribution bias, where women’s caregiving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.4

These findings illustrate that men are far more likely to receive a review that consists of developmental feedback to help them succeed and grow within the company and that women are reviewed vaguely but judged harshly based on their interactions and communication with others. The study also showed that vague feedback correlated with lower performance review ratings for women — but not for men.5

In other words, vague feedback and biases can specifically hold women back.

A lack of female leadership is detrimental to businesses

So, as a business leader, why should any of this matter to you?

For one, developing an authentic workplace is dependent upon being cognizant of issues like this. But for another, the lack of diversity in leadership is proven to hold companies back. Why? Well, affinity bias, the tendency we have to associate and surround ourselves with people like us, is shown to foster homogenous teams that lack diversity and feature a very narrow perspective.6 This is also known as “hiring for a cultural fit” which has also been proven to limit an organization’s creativity and ability to adapt to changing times.

Statistics show that a company culture that welcomes diversity and authenticity is far more likely to retain their talent and see an 84% improved job performance over companies that do not.7 Ninety percent of employees also experience job satisfaction in authentic environments.8 In other words, productivity is highly dependent on having a workplace that is diverse and respectful of all employees, regardless of race or gender. Greater productivity and increased talent retention are highly supportive of increased profits and scalability for the business.

What’s next?

Despite these facts, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles. As of 2019, 68% of c-suite roles were dominated by white men. While 44% of companies had three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29 percent of companies in 2015, white women still only accounted for 18% of c-level roles, and women of color accounted for 4%.9 While any growth is growth, if we don’t continue to support and build women in the workforce, this growth will stall.

Studies show that adding even one woman to leadership can make a material difference, given the critical role top executives play in shaping the business and culture of their company.10 Women tend to be far more understanding of gender, race, and cultural diversity and celebratory of diversity. They also bring a new perspective and openness to change that benefits the business in the long run.

While some call this a glass ceiling, a broken rung, or other phrases to explain the issue, the bottom line is that without diversity in leadership roles, businesses will stagnate and begin to fail. As the business world continues to evolve at a quick pace, stacking teams with leaders who are open-minded, open to taking risks, and encourage employee development regardless of race or gender, will be the differentiator that separates the businesses who can adapt from those who are stuck in their ways.