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Is now the time to move away from trying to impact mindset and behaviours and look more to bias interrupters?

7 February, 2017
Fleur Bothwick

I read a recent article in a UK paper that stated that bonuses for female bosses in London were half the size of those awarded to their male counterparts.  One of the commentators said that reward for performance should be gender blind and suggested that one way of achieving this would be to invest in unconscious bias (UB) training.  I found this suggestion so disappointingly lame.  Now, I haven’t joined the band of professionals that suggest that any sort of D&I training is a waste of time and money, but I do believe that 1) UB training has a role, but is more about awareness raising than training and 2) it’s a small part of a much bigger jigsaw.  I also don’t believe that a bit of UB training would have a significant impact on getting men and women equitable bonus awards.

I’m of the school of thinking that we need to do more with ‘bias interrupters’, as Joan C Williams talks about in her HBR article, Hacking Tech’s Diversity problem.  We need to identify where we have the biggest issues and why and then how we can change the process to impact the outcome.

Take for example our global initiative at EY – EY@Work.  When a location needs to expand or move we aim to totally modernise the office environment to encourage greater collaboration and flexibility through the way that work is done – e.g., unassigned desks to encourage activity based working.  As part of this work, all of our printers have been changed.  Previously you would send something to print that would appear at a printer in the middle of the office.  Often you would be distracted by a phone call or a question and forget to pick up the paper you had printed.  We spent a lot of time reminding people about the impact of paper waste, both financially and on the climate, but we didn’t see much behaviour change.  Now when you want to print, you have to physically go to a printer and using your fob key and request a print out there and then – no wasted printing.  It’s estimated that we have saved thousands of pounds without having to change an individual’s mind-set.  Why can’t we do this at key stages of the talent cycle?

Joan draws our attention to a study by Andreas Leibbrandt and John A. List. ‘They posted two versions of announcements for administrative assistant jobs in stereotypically masculine businesses -football and basketball. One version said nothing about salary; the other said “salary negotiable.” Leibbrandt and List wanted to investigate whether women are less likely to negotiate their salaries than men, which contributes to the pay gap between the sexes. Could a simple two-word phrase interrupt that pattern? It could. In fact, not only did the “salary negotiable” language close the negotiation gap between men and women, it closed the pay gap between the male and female hires by 45%.

So back to thinking about equitable bonuses for women and men.  Why not make sure that during the planning process, someone is tracking the numbers as they are discussed and at the end of each day, the decision makers are shown a spreadsheet profile of the distribution of men versus women.  Then during the sign off process, there are clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable to be submitted for approval.  This would make the process transparent and as unbiased as is humanely possible.  The reason we talk so much about unconscious bias is that we are making the point that often people are not aware that they are being biased.  I think that at times we are being too kind.  Let’s stop giving people the ‘get out’ card because they are hardwired to have bias and instead get some of our people processes proofed so that we can counter balance’ human error’.