Is beating unconscious bias the key to letting women flourish in finance?

Is beating unconscious bias the key to letting women flourish in finance?

Business transformation expert Rita Trehan outlines how tackling unconscious bias is the key to narrowing the gap for women in the accounting sector

Is beating unconscious bias the key to letting women flourish in finance?

Unfortunately, like many professional sectors, there is still a gender imbalance in the financial sector. Gender equality is thankfully improving in most sectors, but the rate of evolution simply is not fast enough.

According to government statistics, gender diversity is just inadequate. Only 23 percent of positions on the average board were filled by females and only 14 percent on Executive Committees.

There are several factors creating barriers for women within the financial industry. It’s an obvious theme, where too few women are able to reach the heights of management. It seems that women in the industry are hitting the mid-tier and finding their progress has come to a complete stop, which often results with them leaving the profession if they haven’t felt compelled to do so earlier.

Governmental research revealed that gender balance in the industry follows a ‘pyramid model’, where the number of female leaders seem to fade the closer you get to the top of the hierarchy.

We’ve identified the problem, so how do we fix it and more importantly, why should we fix it?

The role of unconscious bias

Taking the effort to combat unconscious bias seems a good place to start. Unconscious bias is not inherently evil. Without it, life would be far more challenging. To have to critically analyse every single decision we make would be time-consuming and absolutely exhausting, but there is a time and a place for it – and the workplace is not one.

Understanding what unconscious bias is, and why it occurs, is the first step to combating it. We all do it – our personal experiences combined with stereotypes can impact our thoughts and actions without us even realising that it’s happening.

Turning the unconscious into conscious, thinking about what we need to say before we say it, not rushing into decision-making and instead taking the time to be empathetic about your peers and not jumping to a pre-conceived view can go a long way to break down barriers in the workplace.

Encouraging your colleagues to diligently consider their own biases when interacting with each other and to ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ can allow team members to look at a situation more objectively.

What would be even more powerful is fostering a bias-free environment amongst management and leadership teams, especially when it comes to hiring and promotion practices.

Bias is confused for meritocracy

Sadly, the status quo means that workplace gender bias is often confused for meritocracy. With men making up the majority of the sector, hiring and promoting males seems natural.

Biased practices such as not considering a mother for a role that may require a lot of travel, or not promoting a woman because she may go on maternity leave, need to stop. In fact, our society must evolve to the extent that these biases simply cease to exist.

The business case for eradicating biases seems blindingly obvious. Businesses in the financial sector with women at the helm are more successful.** This fact plays out across other industries too. Statistics show that companies that have higher numbers of females within their senior management teams outperform firms that have fewer women within management roles, with returns consistently being above the national industry median.

Couple this with the fact that these organisations are also deemed to being more pleasant and accepting places to work (and who wouldn’t want that?), it seems diversity makes such common sense.

Avoiding groupthink

The benefits don’t stop there. From increased diversity amongst boards that can be the perfect antidote to corporate groupthink, through to the fact that women who have managed to reach the higher ranks in establishments that are not overly diverse are usually more experienced and often more qualified than their colleagues, simply because they’ve had to work so hard to achieve their status.

What can business leaders do? It starts by taking a step back and ensuring that decision-making starts with the head and not the heart. Performance targets around diversity are often confused with quotas, which they are not. They are about making the move to levelling the playing field and keeping diversity at the centre of everything and managing the performance indictor in the same way that a company manages financial or operational targets. As the saying goes “diversity is about being invited to the party, inclusive is about being invited to dance.” Leaders need to foster an environment that provides opportunities to all who are qualified and capable, rather than fall back on those that are mirror images of themselves.

Women deserve better, as do our colleagues. Open workplaces with voices from all different backgrounds can help inject new blood into an otherwise stale establishment. In my opinion, I cannot understand why diversity is not in the forefront of the minds of CEOs and COOs. Keeping staff happy, as well as the fascinating correlation between women at the top and the success of a business, to me, it’s just a no-brainer.

Diversity isn’t just about numbers. It’s about finding the right talent and making sure that those individuals have the opportunity to flourish. It’s about businesses that have a higher purpose who understand why diversity is critical to success.

Rita Trehan is a business transformation expert and and CEO of Dare Worldwide.

 

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