Is unconscious bias killing careers in your company?
Friday, April 12, 2013
By Joan Toth
Corporate America has addressed the overt discrimination
that historically hindered women and is tackling a less obvious obstacle:
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
"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
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.
expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not
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