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News & Blogs: Memo from the CEO

Is unconscious bias killing careers in your company?

Friday, April 12, 2013  
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By Joan Toth

Corporate America has addressed the overt discrimination that historically hindered women and is tackling a less obvious obstacle: Unconscious bias.

Unconscious gender bias still permeates many companies, according to "Changing the Game: Harnessing the Power of Female Talent,” a report in the Network of Executive Women’s best practices series.

"Unconscious bias is still alive and well in organizations, including assumptions about what women want and don’t want in the workplace,” write report authors Trudy Bourgeois, president and CEO of The Center Workforce Excellence, and Leslie Traub, chief consulting officer for Cook Ross Inc.

Unconscious biases are found in many workplace assumptions that are rarely confronted. "You can’t get ahead if you work part time.” "You must have an MBA to lead a business unit.” "You must have tenure to get promoted.” These types of unspoken assumptions often get in the way of a gender-equal talent pipeline.

Such flawed assumptions influence leadership styles, training and career development programs of almost every company (even yours). Hidden or not, the result is the same: Women’s careers are limited or cut short, talent is wasted, and insights and revenue are left on the table.

Many of the industry’s leaders are dealing with unconscious bias head on, reworking their approach to talent development and management, which historically has rewarded male leadership styles. These companies recognize the importance of women to their growth strategies and are changing their talent management strategies to leverage women’s strengths: Creating collaborative relationships, informing strategy with empathy, promoting innovation, responding to nontraditional needs and mentoring and sponsoring others.

"Optimizing the contributions of female leaders requires clearly identifying and addressing their barriers to success; actively identifying women as a strategic resource for growing the business; and holding senior leaders, starting with the CEO, accountable for talent management,” Bourgeois and Traub write.

Unfortunately, unconscious gender bias permeates most companies’ talent management programs. Women are not receiving constructive feedback, performance coaching or career sponsoring as often as men.

Unconscious bias also is found in companies’ work/life balance solutions, which are often heralded as "women friendly.” Often, these programs are little used, because those who do take part are perceived as lacking commitment to the company or committing "career suicide.” To encourage gender diversity at all levels, a company’s work/life program should target the entire workforce, be highly visible and very accessible and include the most popular options for both men and women, such as flexible work schedules, appropriate workloads, predictable working hours and remote work sites. 

Success stories

While consumer products companies are ahead of grocery retailers in their gender diversity initiatives, retailers such as The Kroger Co. and Ahold USA have made extraordinary strides.

In 2012, 16 of the 81 senior executives, 14 of the 65 rising stars and 11 of the 58 store managers in Progressive Grocer’s "Top Women in Grocery” worked at Kroger, demonstrating the retailer’s commitment to gender diversity throughout the talent pipeline.

Last year, NEW Board Member M. Marnette Perry was named senior vice president, strategic initiatives and operations at Kroger, the latest career advancement for Perry, who began her retail career as a part-time Kroger cashier. Perry joins two other women on Kroger’s 15-person senior management list: Lynn Marmer, group vice president of corporate affairs, and Kathleen Barclay, senior vice president of human resources, corporate affairs.

At Ahold USA, one-third of executive positions are held by women: Paula Price, executive vice president of finance and CFO, and Kathy Russello, executive vice president of human resources.

Like Kroger, Ahold USA’s efforts to fill the talent pipeline with high-potential women starts at the store level. The Giant/Martin division, for example, re-launched its business resource group Women Adding Value (WAV) in September at the retailer’s Fourth Annual Women’s Conference. More than 350 managers and leaders participated in a day of development and networking, an event that emphasized the value of business resource groups and provided support to the company’s key diversity objectives of building talent, community and the business.

These retailers serve as powerful examples of the progress that can be made. To truly satisfy shifting consumer demands, the development and advancement of women -- an undervalued, underutilized resource -- must become a business imperative industrywide. That means not only advancing gender diversity one woman at a time, but changing corporate cultures so that women -- and their companies -- can achieve their best.

Joan Toth is past president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women. This article first appeared in Progressive Grocer.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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