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Is Your Own Mind Holding Your Career Back? Cognitive Bias and Women’s Careers

news published date 30 July 2018
  • Thoughts & Opinions

In male-doiminated professions, a woman may also see few models of successful women in the field, so some men and some women may unconsciously assume that being male is a pre-condition to being successful.

Cognitive bias are unconscious assumptions that our mind uses to help processing the constant flow of information it receives. Unconscious bias can relate to gender and careers and can influence your decision-making without you realising it.

Whether you are involved in the recruitment and promotion process within your organisation or whether you are a woman working in a male-dominated profession, understanding cognitive bias and how they work will bring tangible benefits.

What are cognitive bias and why we have them

Cognitive bias are used by our minds to make it quicker and easier to navigate in a complex and busy world. We are constantly bombarded by visual, auditory and sensory stimuli that our brain needs to process and interpret immediately. Mental models with predetermined assumptions help us get through life without having to spend too much time considering situations thoroughly and systematically every time. In other words, cognitive bias are shortcuts employed by our brain to make our life easier.

However, when these assumptions are inaccurate, they hold us back without us knowing. Scientists have found there are more than one hundred-and-fifty different cognitive bias, some of which relate to how we perceive ourselves and other people. Gender stereotyping bias is one of these.

Gender stereotyping bias concerns how women are perceived in the workplace. Research has found that men and women tend to implicitly associate women more readily with the idea of family or working in a “caring profession”, rather than working in a management position or in technical roles, which are traditionally thought of as “masculine occupations”.

Researchers at Harvard University have devised a series of online tests to measure if, without knowing and without meaning to, we make some of these potentially unhelpful assumptions, which may hold us back or may prevent our organisation from recruiting the best people.

What is the problem with cognitive bias?

The main problem with cognitive bias is that they are not based on rational, systematic thinking. They are based on assumptions and, sometimes, stereotyping. Additionally, because they are unconscious and automatic, they can be difficult to identify and control.

On a practical level, in the case of the gender stereotyping bias, the Boston Consulting Group has found that they negatively affect the performance reviews and pay decisions regarding women. Research by McKinsey has also found that companies with a more diverse workforce and that accurately judge the skills, worth and contribution of their female employees perform better financially. In addition, a study by the Boston Consulting Group has shown that the link with strong financial performance is even stronger when there is an empowered female workforce. Therefore, if gender stereotyping bias is influencing your recruitment and retention of women, your company may be suffering financially due to unconscious gender bias.

In addition, gender stereotyping bias may affect how we perceive ourselves. If a woman compares herself to the stereotypical image of someone in male-dominated sectors, such as, banking, finance or the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, she may unconsciously assume that she does not have the “right” characteristics for the job. In fact, the perception of these “masculine characteristics” may simply be some common characteristics of some of the people who have traditionally done the job. They are not pre-conditions for doing the job successfully nor may they be necessarily useful.

For most jobs, it is unlikely that one’s gender, appearance, body language or language are logically connected to competence and ability to do the job well. In male-doiminated professions, a woman may also see few models of successful women in the field, so some men and some women may unconsciously assume that being male is a pre-condition to being successful. These assumptions may lead women to hold themselves back without realising it and not apply for positions or promotions or asking for a pay rise that are within reach.

How to disarm the effect of cognitive bias

Gender cognitive bias may prejudice your company’s recruitment and retention and you may miss out on the most talented, best suited candidates. There is evidence from a Ghent University study that training may help in recognizing bias and preventing the influence of bias in decision-making. Providing cognitive bias training to those who recruit and promote in your organisation can give insight into the unconscious part of their decision-making process. This would lead to a more systematic way to manage your workforce and to women feeling recognized and empowered, which – in turn – has been linked to financial success for the company.

Gender cognitive bias may also hold you back from fulfilling your full potential. Understanding your unconscious assumptions and bringing them into awareness helps identify what is holding you back. How do you perceive yourself? And how do you perceive your male and your female colleagues? What lies behind those perceptions?

Identifying and understanding any bias you may have in relation to your own competence, abilities and promotion potential would help you assess your perceptions rationally and discard any bias that may be holding you back.

Our mind can give us the power to achieve what we want and what is within reach, or it can hinder us without us knowing. Awareness and understanding of cognitive bias can help us realise and live up to our full potential.

Alexis Faber is an expert in body language, cognitive psychology and deception-detection. She is the founder of In-Sight, which uses unique a skill-set to train organisations on body language, cognitive bias, equality in the workplace, and to advise organisations on HR matters. Alexis can be contacted at [email protected] or via her website