Tackling unconscious bias in the workplace

18 June 2019

Geoff Rogers

Geoff has worked in the wealth industry across APAC for over 35 years. Geoff joined Iress in February 2022 as...

A key to championing gender equality in the workplace is the issue of confronting unconscious bias.

Since the beginning of my career, I believed that I was a supporter of championing gender equality in the workplace. Growing up I was never one of ‘the boys’. I hated the bullies at school, and throughout my career, many of the best leaders I worked for were exceptional female executives whom I still have enormous respect for.

What’s more, my father was a great example of a man who championed gender equality. Even back in the early 70s, he encouraged my mother to finish her HSC and go to university. Mum later went on to become a university tutor, linguist, sub-editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, and is now a champion bridge player and a lover of fine Scotch whisky!

Despite this background and self-perception, it was not until later in my career that I began to realise that I needed to look deeper into how I was approaching gender equality in the workplace.

Unconscious bias

After working overseas for 10 years, I landed back in Australia in 2005. For the first time, I was introduced to gender quotas which were being used to encourage workplace diversity. At the same time, the concept of managing unconscious bias was being taught at the corporate level.

As the term suggests, unconscious bias is holding stereotypes about groups of individuals and basing our decisions on them without really being conscious of doing so. So, while I truly believed that I stood for gender equality in the workplace, I needed to check if I had a blind spot.

Given my values and family background, the notion that I may hold an unconscious bias was abhorrent to me. I felt I needed to improve, to step up and take this more seriously than I had been. Armed with this heightened awareness, I reflected on how I had been promoting females in the workplace, whether I had equally shared opportunities, and even who I was paying attention to in meetings.

This is where Judith Beck comes into my story.

Judith had voluntarily started up Financial Executive Women (FEW) and needed to get some people on board.

FEW is not run for commercial purposes. Its vision is to help women excel in their careers and develop future leaders. It started with the concept of providing Career Advocate Programs to women in the financial services industry, and has now grown to include an annual conference, leadership circles, deep dives and the FEW Good Men program (a voluntary mentoring program).

This is all supported by people from various businesses in this industry, who just want to help and make a difference. I was impressed from the beginning and wanted to become involved. After all, I had to shake my unconscious bias.

So, when Judith asked me to contribute to this article for Money & Life about championing women in the workplace, I was very keen to share my thoughts.

How can men better champion women in the workplace?

I recommend the first step is to check if you still have some element of unconscious bias about gender equality in the workplace. I know far more people are aware now, but it’s still worthwhile reflecting on to see what more can be done. You may be surprised with the result. After all, supporting gender equality is not that hard to do once you are aware of where you really stand.

Over the past 10 years, I have cemented into my working pattern a number of steps to ensure opportunities are being created for all team members. While these are not unique and may seem obvious, it’s more the commitment to ensuring these happen that has worked for me. Here are the major ones I rely on.

  • For new hires, I ensure there is a mix of female and male candidate(s) being considered and interviewed. If using a recruiting firm, I explicitly ask they do everything they can to find a sufficient number of quality female candidates.
  • For rising female talent within the organisation, I make an effort to reach out to them early to discuss their interests and career aspirations, both within and beyond the scope of their current role.
  • I am fortunate to work in an organisation that genuinely supports flexible working, and I consciously ensure that I am encouraging and supporting this, even to the point of making time with a team member to ensure they have considered all their options. I’ve seen that many people do not take advantage of flexible working unless explicitly encouraged and supported.
  • I have learned to be proactive when encouraging female staff to seek promotion. Work-life balance is one key concern preventing women from applying for bigger or more senior roles. Engaging early can help them make the best decision for themselves.

Why is it important to champion women in the workplace?

For me, there are obvious benefits to championing women in the workplace. I have enjoyed working in more balanced teams with greater diversity of views and opinions, and seeing more talent come through than if I had not been paying attention to this issue. Having a workforce that reflects our customer base (in my case, financial planners) and community better, is the right thing to do. It helps drive innovation and is good for customers and our business.

I’m grateful there is currently such a focus on encouraging gender diversity and equality, especially with all the challenges we face.

I have been involved in this industry since 1986 and I have never seen as much change occurring as is today. There have been significant shifts in business models in the corporate wealth sector, increasing challenges facing financial planners and financial planning firms, and greater awareness of the importance of gender balance when making decisions regarding personal advice.

I believe these changes make it more important than ever to encourage diversity and equality in the workplace.

An advocate for women

For me, being an advocate for women means being an advocate for all. Throughout my career, one of the most rewarding and important parts of my role has been to mentor and coach people to develop and reach their potential. Shaking off my own unconscious bias has allowed me to do this more fully and effectively.

I’ve also learned so much along the way. The FEW conference content has always been first class. I thoroughly enjoy the mentoring sessions that I participate in as a FEW Good Men member. As so often happens when you are undertaking a mentoring role, you learn as much being the mentor as you do being mentored.

Working on improving gender equality is rewarding and engaging, and we must continue with our efforts to address this issue.

P.S. Please tell my mother I no longer have an unconscious bias!