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Removing ‘Unconscious Bias’ - A Workplace Imperative

1 October 2013 at 10:41 am
Staff Reporter
Organisations need to work harder to address their work practices and remove ‘unconscious bias’ against women employees, according to Westpac’s Chief Executive of Australian Financial Services, Brian Hartzer.

Staff Reporter | 1 October 2013 at 10:41 am


Removing ‘Unconscious Bias’ - A Workplace Imperative
1 October 2013 at 10:41 am

Organisations need to work harder to address their work practices and remove ‘unconscious bias’ against women employees, according to Westpac’s Chief Executive of Australian Financial Services, Brian Hartzer.

Hartzer was part of a recent panel discussion at the CEDA Women in Leadership conference on the topic of Quotas – It's not a gender issue but about competitiveness and productivity.

Here’s an edited version of Brian Hartzer’s speech:

As part of my address I want to give an ‘insider’s perspective’ on how senior appointments really get made, and how we need to approach this differently if women are to advance in senior management and ultimately to board membership.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a story with you.

Recently a senior executive at an investment bank – let’s call him Tom – noticed that only about 20 per cent of the “short list” candidates he interviewed for first year analyst positions were women.

And this was despite the fact that around 50 per cent of the people applying for these roles were female.

Tom asked why was there such a discrepancy between the proportion of female applicants and the short listed candidates? What was going wrong?

What Tom discovered was this: the screening of candidates was being carried out by junior staff members – mostly young men – and those young men were weeding out the female candidates.

Now you could call this discrimination – a conscious bias against women.

But what if it was more subtle?

What if these young men were simply trying to identify the candidates who were likely to be successful in the role?

What if they were looking for people whose CVs and backgrounds looked like their own?

And what if the people with these CVs and backgrounds all happen to be men?

In other words – what if the issue is not conscious, but unconscious bias?

Of course, there’s more to the issue of advancing women in leadership.  There are cases of deliberate discrimination.  However my experience suggests that unconscious bias deserves much more attention than it has received to date.

In my experience, very few men in senior business roles are consciously biased against the advancement of women.

On the contrary, many, if not most men want to do what they can to support women.

From what I have seen, they don’t make the right choice because:

One – They have inadvertently contributed to work practices that make women feel excluded.

Two – They develop candidate pools in ways that overlook important sources of high potential women.

Three – They select candidates based on a model of what they think is needed to be successful, not realizing that their model is based solely on their experience of male approaches to the role.

In other words, they’re tripped up by unconscious bias.

So the solution is not about how women need to change – organisations need to work harder to address their work practices and remove unconscious bias.

Too many women are not being promoted, or not being hired in the first place.

Too many women with family responsibilities are opting out of roles and career progression because of inflexible work practices that more often than not are set by men.

In short, the talents of too many women are wasted.

From the standpoint of fairness, this is a problem.  But this is not just a matter of fairness – it is also an economic imperative.

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the importance of driving economic growth in Australia, and this debate often focuses on the challenge of what we refer to as “productivity”.  To me, productivity is really about three things:

  • It’s about being more innovative,
  • It’s about helping more people get into and stay in the workforce, and
  • Most of all it’s about helping people achieve their full potential.

What does that have to do with gender equity? Well, everything.

  • We know that innovation comes with diversity of thinking,
  • We know that diversity in executive teams and in the boardroom helps drive better financial results,
  • We know that the rise in female employment has boosted Australia’s economy by 22 per cent since 1974,  
  • And we know that closing the gap that exists between male and female employment rates would boost GDP by up to 13 per cent.

That’s why it makes economic sense for Australia to not just get  more women into the workforce, but to also help them achieve their full potential.

Looking at it this way, gender equity is not about women’s interests – it’s about the national interest.

So what do we need to do about this – are quotas the answer? Based on our experience at Westpac, I would have to say, ‘No.’ Westpac has a strong record of supporting gender equity.

As an employer, we set a target of having women in 40% of our leadership roles – and we achieved that target last September … two years ahead of schedule.

This year we set a new target of having women in 50% of our leadership positions by 2017 – the year we reach our 200th anniversary as a company.

Achieving those numbers won’t be easy, but – unlike a quota – this is a target we want to hit.

More recently, we’re providing training to make our people aware of gender differences and the possibility of unconscious bias.

We’ve also begun looking for talented women outside the banking profession, encouraging them to consider ‘branching out’ into areas their own biases may have excluded them from.

And we’ve made it a principle that at least one woman should be on the shortlist for every senior position – not as an act of tokenism, but as a statement of serious intent.

I know this is last point is controversial for some people. But I believe it’s important, because whether they are chasing their first job, restarting a career, or seeking a leadership position – talented women deserve to be seriously considered rather than dismissed out of hand.

The challenge of getting more women into leadership roles has many sides to it, with more issues and solutions than I’ve covered today.

But what is clear, as shown by Westpac’s experience, is that genuine intent, combined with stretching targets and a clear focus on removing unconscious bias, can make a real difference.

All of us in business, Westpac included, have more to do.  And we need to do more, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do for our country.

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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