“We didn't give you this role as we weren't sure if you had a tough enough skin to deal with this group of difficult stakeholders."
“We weren't sure if you would be able to engage with these stakeholders as they are senior male staff with big egos and they are more used to dealing with other males."
“The person selected (male) will be more able to establish rapport with these customers and so be more likely to close the sale."
“We had a female in this role before and she wasn't approachable enough which damaged the overall team."
“I don't think this role would suit you as it requires travel and dinners with clients and I'm sure you would rather be at home with your kids."
“This non front line role in support or admin is bound to suit you better as it will allow you to meet your home and family needs and work flexibly. I'm sure you'd prefer that."
In addition there was feedback that females applying for first time management roles often have to go through more hoops than their male counterparts. This ranges from having to have proven themselves in their prior role for longer, needing more years of supervisory experience or having to be interviewed/referenced by more people.
There was generally less willingness to promote or hire women for potential. Some said this was because men found it easier to "read" other men and so needed to do more checks to feel "safe" in appointing someone different from what they know and are comfortable with.
My initial reaction to all this was outrage. Obviously. But of course I do realise we all have our biases based on our backgrounds and experiences and that these are pretty much hard wired by the time we are making appointment decisions.
Female executives, even CEOs, are inevitably regaled with questions about how they manage their families as well as their high powered job - a question rarely, if ever, asked of males at the same level.
Equally, male executives who decide to spend more time with their families or in other pursuits may be looked at dubiously by other colleagues for having chosen a perceived career limiting path, to the point where I have seen some of them try to hide the fact they are working flexibly from their colleagues.
What we can and must do is recognise that bias exists in all of us and that we need to put in place circuit breakers whenever we plan to fill any role, before we allow ourselves to default away from the different to the familiar.
In trying to be considerate or benevolent we may well be making erroneous assumptions about women – for example that they want to be home with their kids every night (and that men don't care as much about this) - both of which could be very wrong.
As a result of these assumptions, we could be unfairly holding talented women back from successful management careers and setting in motion a trend and that has long lasting consequences.
For those who have been/are being impacted by benevolent bias, you need to be alert to assumptions being made about you (whether silently or verbally) and make sure you let others know what you actually want. This approach should not exclude utilisation of flexible working preferences.
For those who are responsible for making people decisions, my advice is simple.
Before you make a decision on who to appoint or promote or select for a talent program - stop and pause for thought:
- Be aware of your biases (even if they are not intended to be malicious and you are not applying them consciously):
- Challenge your assumptions by asking questions of the applicant:
- Test your thinking with others who are different to you.
The truth is these biases still exist in the workplace but they are undesirable and, frankly, unacceptable in 2015. Not addressing them is bad for business - and none of us want that.
I'm really interested to hear your examples of any benevolent bias you may have experienced. The more we all understand when this takes place the more we can learn to stop doing it.