Benevolent bias - a new way of making poor people decisions?

I have an hypothesis about the glass ceiling. It is not, as is generally assumed, something women suddenly bang their heads against after 25 years of hard slog, ongoing promotions and successful performance in the corporate world - causing us to just be pipped from the very top jobs.

The reality is the glass ceiling is not at the top floor of the building at all, the impact is felt much earlier in many women's careers. And, if that's not problematic enough, the glass ceiling these days is so subtle it is hard for either gender to even notice it is there, let alone do anything about it.

"Assumptions are made about women that would rarely be made about men in similar circumstances - and which at first blush come across as care and concern."

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Photo credit: pcruciatti /

Yet it is having an impact every day and acts as the genesis for gender inequality at more senior executive levels.

I set out to get some insights on this. In many services organisations it is observable there are a large number - usually more than half - of women at the non-managerial/supervisory levels. But once you start to look at the first level management roles there is a disproportionate drop off in the percentage of roles filled by women (whether via external hiring or internal promotions) - relative to the immediate level below.

This pattern continues and gets worse as you pass through to the more senior roles of the company. It is hardly surprising women fail to get equal representation at the top when they are rapidly shrinking in numbers through the preceding management grades - there are just mathematically less of them to choose from by then.

During much of the past 30 years, the reason for the drop off in females at management levels has been considered to be all about the women and what they should do differently to, in essence, "be more like a man".

While there are things to be learned about how best to progress in the corporate world (whether you are male or female), I no longer accept this conundrum can only be solved by "fixing the women". There remain some fundamental systemic issues around how we hire, promote, select for talent and remunerate which arise from powerful and persistent stereotypes of what women should be doing, what they want to be doing and what they can/or can't do.

Over the past three decades, the corporate world has seen direct discrimination, indirect discrimination as well as the latest buzz term: "unconscious bias" (suggesting people do not know what they are doing but they are doing it anyway).

My thought is there is yet another form of bias - be it conscious or unconscious - that I describe as "benevolent bias". It is where assumptions are made about women that would rarely be made about men in similar circumstances - and which at first blush come across as care and concern.

When I'm talking about “benevolent bias" here are some of the situations I am talking about – and they came in particular but not exclusively from male managers when women were not offered a first level management role that they had actively applied for.


While researching this piece, Susie asked her network on LinkedIn about their thoughts on benevolent bias. Below is an edited selection of the best responses.

Dee (Dorota) Korab
I think the critical point is drawing attention to this type of bias and its impacts to prevent it at a senior level in the first place. As you pointed out, it is not malicious or even conscious. On a personal level, I have found role models in successful, respected women around me. However, such individuals are not present in every area of an organisation, particularly the most male-dominated fields, which highlights the importance of high calibre women connecting with junior staff. ANZ has already identified such individuals in its Notable Women Program. Why not broaden the scope to not only increase their presence in the press or on social media, but internally within the organisation? 

Rhiannon Richardson
Customer facing roles, sporty networking events and high risk international assignments spring to mind. Solutions: put your hand up, recommend other women, ask women to put their hand up (most important one because they then know someone believes in them), ask if not 50:50 on succession plans why not. Hope this helps.

Nick Withford
For me I see this situation very similar to 'flexibility' in the workplace. It is a great thing for our organisation to publicly promote flexibility within all roles, however we all need to actively promote it and create opportunities for it to overcome bias within any office or team. Only then will we keep 'all' our talented people, and also attract 'new' talented women & men to ANZ.

“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. 

Then decide.

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.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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