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You’ll have heard about the 2010 Harvard Business School case study where the same professional’s CV was presented as either that of a Heidi Roizen or Howard Roizen? Sight unseen, biased judgment interpreted the same CV in radically different ways. Opinions about Heidi were much harsher than Howard across the board. Just as competent and effective but deemed aggressive rather than assertive. They just didn’t like her or wanted to hire her.

This study led to changes, e.g. blind auditions for orchestra recruitment. It was amazing how many great female musicians were identified when applicants were chosen for their sound rather than their gender. No-one believed they were favouring men over women until that playing field was levelled.

What lies below

Being a woman is still a real Catch 22: lack confidence, you likely won’t succeed. If you display as much confidence as many men, you likely won’t succeed.

The problem with unconscious bias is, of course, that it is unconscious. If we bring one deeply held and outmoded belief to the forefront of our minds and challenge it, we have no idea how many others exist just out of sight. Political correctness also plays its part in obscuring what people truly think. People mind what they say so there is no opportunity for challenge.

Every now and then, however, something just slips out and shows what lurks beneath. A client of ours, a senior banker working at a strategic level transforming the bank on the high street, decided to leave for a lower stress job, with a different culture, that was prepared to pay her even more.

A male peer greeted the news with: “yes but you must just work for pin money. Your husband has a good job”… 

And there it all was, out in the open. Deep down, he didn’t really believe women needed or wanted the money. They had men, despite the vast number of women who are in single parent families, divorced or the main breadwinner in their family. Consider the implications for recruitment and retention if you hold odd or outmoded beliefs about women’s ambition, commitment, loyalty and need for money. This could also be why, despite the lower ratios of women, they are often the first ones to be ‘let go’ when redundancy strikes. Well, there must be a man somewhere paying their way…

Perhaps recruitment issues start even earlier. In conversation with women bankers in private wealth, they talked about what a good career it was for women, especially as there is an increasingly greater number of women wealthy in their own right (though divorce and inheritance might have played a part for some). They described how all the adverts, websites, reports they saw used stock images that implied it was a job for very traditional, public school, wood panelled males. As a result, women, due to their own unconscious bias, saw that it wasn’t the place for them. 

How to change this unconscious bias? 

Improving the ratio of women starts with the adverts, job specs, interview process, just to make sure you start fishing in the entire talent pool. Sometimes you have to go out and entice women before they realise the opportunities they could have with you. 

It is worth the effort for some of the following reasons:

  • There is strong evidence of high female performance in the industry. For example a recent Goldman Sachs report showed that all-women or mixed gender fund teams have outperformed all-male portfolio management teams so far this year. 
  • Over the 10 years since we published our research with the London School of Economics and the book Coaching Women to Lead, men have learned to talk a good game about the need for higher diversity but, in many sectors including Investment Management, this is just skin deep: deep down, the CEOs and senior executives don’t really believe in women’s ability to do as well as them. They still have unconscious bias about risk attitude for example (long debunked).

  • It is the Board’s responsibility to push the executive team to do something about it and go beyond a box ticking exercise: it is just good business sense.

  • Our research clearly shows that what is good for women is good for ‘diverse’ groups: ignore this at your peril as diversity becomes the norm.

Therefore, not actively recruiting, promoting and developing women looks like a wilful act of negligence or a deliberate exclusion. Time for the Board to hold execs to account.

We’d love to hear from you!