Unconscious bias

By Angela Godfrey, Angela Godfrey and Associates

The proportionate representation of women in the stockbroking profession remains low, with 13% female membership of SIAA likely a fairly accurate representation of the overall picture. This is problematic as the benefits of diversity in the workplace are well known. Diversity fosters a wider variety of ideas, ensures the reputation of the workplace is positive, attracts and retains talent and improves profitability. This article explores how unconscious bias may be deterring women from entering the profession and how organisations can reduce unconscious bias to attract and retain women in the profession.

What is unconscious bias?

Scientist say that the brain has a limit on how much information it can process at once. So, it short cuts decisions by using our beliefs, our background, our values, our upbringing, our gender etc. We created these shortcuts early on in our evolution when we were all competing for resources. For example: friend or foe, threat or safety? Unconscious bias is problematic when it leads to prejudice, and poor decision making. So, if you want to attract talent and diversity of thinking our brains may be letting us down.

Examples of unconscious bias

In my career I have come across countless examples of unconscious bias. Here are a few examples:

“We have a 50/50 split in the leadership team. The women bring collaboration, empathy, and EQ.”

During COVID when IT equipment was provided to employees the following was said: “Don’t worry your husband can set up your equipment when you get home.”

These comments were well intentioned but unconscious bias got in the way. Not all women are collaborative, have empathy or high EQ and not all men are good with setting up IT equipment!

How unconscious bias may be preventing women from entering the stockbroking profession

Here are a few examples:

I recently read a LinkedIn article by a female stockbroker about her career. She said stockbrokers require traits such as ‘aggression, decisiveness.’ These adjectives are male gendered. While words like ‘committed, responsible’ are female gendered. Gendered wording commonly employed in job recruitment materials can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations. Research says that women consciously or unconsciously have a lower sense that they would belong in the company with male gendered wording than advertisements using more feminine wording. Therefore, if you are not conscious of the biased wording, you may be unwittingly deterring the precise people you are wanting to attract.

Stockbrokers work an average of 51 hours per week[1]. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women are 72% of the primary carers. Coupled with this, the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that about a quarter of women spend more than ten hours a week doing unpaid indoor housework compared to just eight per cent of men. So, if women are still undertaking the household jobs a career on stockbroking may be less appealing due to the long hours.

Tips for tackling unconscious bias

The first step is to accept that we all have unconscious bias. You can be aware of your own biases by simply paying close attention. Check your assumptions rather than generalising. Take this statement by a CEO about employees returning to the office when COVID restriction were lifted. “All employees should be back in the office as that where decisions get made.” If we assume that women are the primary carer, it means women are more likely to work part time, be out of the loop for decision making which may hamper their career prospects.

Adrienne Penter, Executive Director of the Center for Women & Wealth at Brown Brothers Harriman in the US wrote a recent article about financial advisers. Penta discussed the tendency among financial advisers to ask men about business and women about their families. Certainly, no offense was meant. Advisers are engaging with clients in the manner that they think clients want and expect. But often that is based on a faulty assumption.

Unconscious bias training is a good idea but will have little impact if it is not part of a strategic program designed to deliver change. Systems must be established that interrupt the bias. Think about your recruitment criteria? Is the language male gendered? Does your remuneration system reward on the amount of work completed? A friend recently told me that her incentive was less than a male colleague because she worked part time and did not contribute as much work as her full time male counterpart!

Workplaces alone, however, cannot fix the problem. It is a problem in society in general. Teaching from an early age about the harm of gender stereotypes is important. Following COVID, time will tell if flexibility is here to stay for men and women. Fundamental is the need to get to a point where men and women are completely interchangeable in their family and work roles.

[1] https://labourmarketinsights.gov.au/occupation-profile/stockbrokers?occupationCode=222213

This article is for information only.