HOW UNCONSCIOUS BIAS PERVADES LANGUAGE
AND HINDERS ADVANCEMENT
Unconscious bias is persistent and toxic, pervading our
daily interactions even when we think we’ve controlled
for it. This is not a new phenomenon or research area.
In 1952, The Boston Symphony started conducting blind
auditions as an attempt to address gender bias in hiring. In the
initial stages of the experiment, The Boston Symphony asked
musicians to audition from behind a screen to conceal their gen-ders.
However, males were still selected more frequently than
women until the musicians were asked to remove their shoes.
Why? Adjudicators had unconsciously voted against female musi-cians
after hearing their high heels on the floor as they entered
the room. The lesson was that the unconscious brain finds ways
to enable bias, even when we’ve ostensibly gone to great lengths
to override it.
Today, gender bias affecting hiring continues to be present in
the workplace and researchers are now looking at the use of lan-guage
as an enabler of this. Our use of language can limit gender
diversity in the workforce, from hiring, to assessments, to ter-minations.
Biased language can be found in everything from job
postings, to candidate screening processes and resumé and per-formance
reviews, perpetuating the status quo inside industries,
companies, functions and roles.
WHY THE WORDS YOU USE MATTER
A recent Harvard Business Review piece found that individuals
tend to use language to describe people in ways that support tra-ditionally
held stereotypes and beliefs. The article addresses the
different words used to describe male and female leaders. This
study found that women not only had fewer positive descriptors
(four to men’s 10), they also had six times the number of negative
descriptors (12 to men’s two). However, the words themselves
were also very powerful. The top positive female words were
“compassionate” and “enthusiastic,” while the words for men were
“analytical” and “competent.” These words can have harmful con-sequences
for women as the male words align more closely with
business language and descriptions for ideal candidates in many
senior executive roles.
Research also shows that another powerful example of bias can
be seen in how we process the traditional male versus female voice.
In an interview with Fast Company, Stanford University linguistics
professor, Meghan Sumner, discussed numerous studies that she
conducted which uncovered how listeners make social judgements
about a speaker based on voice. Sumner found that even when a
female voice is defined as “trustworthy, clear and comprehensible,”
that voice receives less credence when compared with a man’s voice.
Conversely, a male voice that is initially defined as “unreliable” or
“lacking in intelligence,” receives an upgrade when compared to a
UNCONSCIOUS GENDER BIAS HINDERS
In her article on gender bias in performance reviews, behavioural
scientist and lawyer Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio asserts that in a per-formance
review, women were 1.4 times more likely than men to
receive critically subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive
By Jane Griffith
imtmphoto / 123RF
THE TOP POSITIVE FEMALE
WORDS WERE “COMPASSIONATE”
AND “ENTHUSIASTIC,” WHILE
THE WORDS FOR MEN WERE
“ANALYTICAL” AND “COMPETENT.”
HRPROFESSIONALNOW.CA ❚ NOVEMBER 2018 ❚ 45