Is it Possible to Have a Productive Conversation About Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?

Categories Conversation

It is with great pride that I can look around and see so many intelligent and industrious women succeeding in all kinds of business endeavors spanning the breadth of the entrepreneurial spectrum — especially knowing that my own success in founding Behrman Communications played at least some role in opening the doors to entrepreneurship that have since become floodgates. The achievements we’ve made over the years represent real progress, but that progress still comes with far too many caveats for anyone to be satisfied with the state of things such as they are.

Which brings me to a question I’ve been pondering for quite some time: Is it possible to have a productive conversation about the role of unconscious biases in the workplace?

Unconscious bias, which might be more familiar to some as implicit bias, is a pervasive issue affecting far too many people, far too frequently. The reason it is so pervasive is due to the simple fact that these biases are unconscious and those afflicted with these biases are largely unaware of prejudicial behavior ranging from the subtle all the way to the overt. These are often people who express a deep commitment to battling the negative effects of prejudicial behavior and genuinely wish to reject prejudice in all of its forms. The reason for the pervasiveness of the issue, of course, is also the reason why it is so difficult to discuss, let alone address.

Women in the workplace are quite likely to have experienced some form of unconscious bias at one point or another during their professional career, and most of us are quite familiar with the statistics that highlight the unconscious biases that ultimately lead to such widespread disparities in gender pay. It’s even quite likely that we’ve cited one of the many statistics supporting the existence of unconscious biases as proof of the inequities within the workplace. That being said, how many of us have actually tried to engage in a conversation about the root cause of the issue as a means for addressing gender inequality in the workplace?

It is understandable that many us have not yet done so. After all, it’s a difficult conversation to have with someone, particularly knowing that broaching the subject risks the appearance of an accusation rather than an opportunity for mutual growth. These discussions may also provoke feelings of guilt or sadness in those who eventually come to the realization that they have not been immune to unconscious bias despite their good intentions. The question before us is clear: What can we do to begin a meaningful and productive discussion on unconscious bias?

I believe that any discussion should begin with the simple acknowledgement that every human being perceives differences — including superficial ones — in other human beings. There is nothing wrong with recognizing a superficial difference; the issue of unconscious bias arises only when we make associations and judgments based on the differences we perceive. Arriving at this basic understanding is the first step in laying the groundwork for a productive conversation about unconscious bias in the workplace.

Over the more than three decades since I began my professional career, I’ve worked hard to create a workplace environment in which everyone is valued and feels confident and comfortable enough to be creative and productive each and every day. Creating this sort of environment sometimes involves difficult conversations, but engaging in these kinds of productive discussions is one of the many ways we can effect meaningful change for the benefit of the next generation of female entrepreneurs waiting for the opportunity to follow in our footsteps.