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Attracting diverse talent by overcoming unconscious biases

By Marni Johnson

Workforce diversity is critical to an organization’s ability to adapt and thrive in today’s rapidly changing environment. Diversity is the presence of differences in gender, age, experience, culture and more. Diversity alone is insufficient – you also need to practice inclusion. An example to outline the difference: diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is actually getting up and dancing.

Although there are many types of diversity, this article will focus on gender diversity.

To be successful in fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion, this must be a priority not only for HR, but also the organization’s top leadership. At BlueShore Financial, women comprise 44 per cent of leaders at the assistant vice president and vice president levels. A commitment to gender diversity ensures opportunities are equally available and attractive to women and that the process is fair to all. It does not mean discriminating in favour of women in hiring or other practices. Decisions are based on merit, not gender.

Attracting a diverse set of candidates

A diverse workforce can be achieved only if there is diversity in hiring. A few suggestions:

  • Does your job posting use gender-neutral language? There are websites that analyze your job ad to determine whether the language will appeal more to men or women.
  • Are the job requirements truly essential, or simply nice to have? A number of studies have shown that men will apply for a job when they meet 60 per cent of the stated qualifications, but women apply only when they meet 100 per cent. This may not be due to a lack of confidence, but rather their assumption that having all the listed qualifications is non-negotiable. Alleviate this by specifying which qualifications are an asset, and which are essential to the role.
  • Are your job ads in the right publications, associations or networks to reach your desired target markets?
  • Do your people policies and practices support gender diversity? Do you offer flexible working hours, the opportunity to return to work part-time after maternity or parental leave? Can employees leave work early to attend to family commitments and then log in and work from home later?

Overcoming unconscious biases

To be human is to have biases, regardless of how good our intentions are. Unconscious biases help us filter and deal with the millions of pieces of information our brains receive. For example, if presented with 200 resumés for a job opening, we cannot possibly interview all candidates. Our brains take shortcuts to narrow down the list, based on past experiences and beliefs. The danger with unconscious bias is that we believe we are being completely objective when in fact we aren’t.

One tool to help with this is the online Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unaware of that affect their behaviour and decisions.

The next step is taking action to neutralize the impact of our biases on our decisions.

Symphony orchestras have been very successful in dealing with gender bias through the audition process. As late as 1970, women represented five to 10 per cent of orchestral musicians in the U.S. At that time, orchestras experimented with “blind” auditions, a practice now standard in North America. Candidates draw straws to determine audition order, and the auditions themselves are done behind a screen. Candidates are often requested not to warm up when they enter the concert hall, as these routines may identify the candidate. Candidates may also be asked to remove their shoes to avoid the judges identifying the type of shoe (e.g., high heels) that could indicate gender. The judges enter the building by a different door than candidates so that they are completely unaware of the personal characteristics of the person auditioning. As a result of blind auditions, the percentage of women hired by major orchestras has doubled.

In April 2017, the Canadian government announced that six of its own departments would be testing a name-blind recruitment process. Research has shown that English-speaking employers are 40 per cent more likely to select candidates with an English or anglicized name than an ethnic one. This government pilot program is in an attempt to eliminate unconscious bias and potential barriers for job-seekers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The project will hide applicants’ names during the initial screening process, and compare the end results with outcomes from traditional hiring practices.

The danger with unconscious bias is that we believe we are being completely objective when in fact we aren’t.

How can we apply these types of “blind” practices in our own recruiting? There are organizations that minimize unconscious bias in the screening process for you by anonymizing any data that would identify gender, age, etc. Other options include getting a second opinion from someone who does not share your biases, or conducting panel interviews to get a diverse set of opinions about a candidate.

Creating a culture of diversity and inclusion requires commitment from the top, and focused effort starting with recruitment practices and continuing throughout the employment relationship. The benefits are attraction and retention of top talent who contribute to increased innovation, which then leads to superior business results. 

Marni Johnson is senior vice president of human resources and communication at BlueShore Financial.

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