May 1, 2020

How to Tackle Unconscious Bias That Keeps Women Out of the C-Suite


Up until a few weeks ago, the highest priority on the talent agenda was addressing diversity hiring challenges. Coronavirus has understandably diverted the attention of HR and recruitment leaders for the time being, but once this crisis is behind us, diversity hiring is likely to be right back at the top of the to-do list once again.

I spoke with the founders of CEO Worldwide and Female Executive Search to gain a better understanding of gender diversity challenges at work and how further progress can be made. Over the course of these conversations, it became clear to me that the key obstacle organizations will have to overcome is unconscious bias in both recruitment and employee development.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

In one way or another, every human being is biased. We naturally make intuitive decisions about other people based on their age, gender, physical appearance, and other demographic details. We stereotype and make assumptions about people even without realizing it. This behavior is what we’re referring to when we talk about “unconscious bias.”

Left unchecked, unconscious bias can influence our judgements of and behavior toward others. It’s easy to see why allowing unconscious bias to influence our recruiting and promotion decisions could be so detrimental — and unfortunately, for a long time, bias has driven these decisions. One only needs to look at the presence — or absence — of women in the C-suite to confirm that statement.

How Unconscious Bias Affects Female Leaders

Put simply, gender-based stereotypes and unconscious bias toward women have long hindered the progression of women to leadership positions. For example, just 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women in 2019 — and that’s an all-time high!

Women are often socially expected to be nurturing and “likable.” While those may seem like relatively innocent assumptions, the problem is that women who don’t conform to these perceptions are often socially and professionally punished for their perceived “failure” to act in accordance with the expectations of others.

Moreover, traditional leadership traits include charisma, self-assurance, and assertiveness. According to gender stereotypes, these are predominantly “male” traits. When women exhibit these traits, they’re often viewed negatively instead of being praised for their leadership. For example, consider the common perception that “men are decisive, but women are bossy.”

If your team is not trained to understand, identify, and counter their unconscious biases, they will likely allow their biases to influence recruiting and promotion decisions. When you repeatedly choose male candidates over equally qualified female candidates, you’re not only perpetuating a socially harmful unconscious bias, but you’re also doing your company a disservice. Research repeatedly shows that more diverse companies perform better, in part because more diverse teams have access to more skills and perspectives, which allows them to better understand their markets and innovate more readily.

It’s important to note that it’s not only men who might have unconscious bias toward women. It can also manifest in the behavior of women toward other women. It’s called “internalized misogyny,” and it can cause women to demonstrate bias against other women.

Combating Unconscious Bias in the Upper Echelons of Business

In general, the outcome of unconscious bias is that women are often unfairly excluded from experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified. As a result, women are disproportionately barred from promotions, and many organizations’ leadership teams are predominately male.

To tackle this issue and help cultivate more women leaders, there are a few steps organizations can start taking now:

1. Acknowledge Your Unconscious Biases

Everyone has unconscious biases, and the first step to dealing with them is to admit and accept that you have them. The Implicit Association Test is one simple tool that can help you and other company decision-makers identify and become more aware of your own biases. When you are aware of your biases, you can more easily evaluate their influence on your hiring, promoting, and mentoring decisions.

2. Audit Your System

Once you have come to terms with your biases, the next step is reassessing the leadership in your organization. Specifically, it may be time to retool your processes and criteria for making promotions. Try to craft a system in which gender cannot be a factor, and create decision-making procedures that firmly put the focus on a candidate’s relevant personality traits, individual strengths, and demonstrated leadership abilities.

3. Set Ground Rules

Be deliberate about tackling biases. That may mean going as far as setting quotas that encourage gender parity in leadership teams, depending on your company’s situation.

You should also establish company-wide ground rules that discourage the kind of behaviors through which unconscious bias often manifests. For example, clearly communicate that people should not interrupt one another during meetings, and make it a general best practice that everyone has a chance to share their opinion in a given conversation. These kinds of ground rules will send a clear message to everyone in that company that inclusion is valued and prejudice is not tolerated.

Many business leaders are focused on ensuring their companies survive the current crisis. That’s completely understandable, but once the pandemic is over, there will still be plenty of business challenges to face. That’s why it’s a good idea to take time now to position your business for greater success on the other side. If you kickstart your efforts to building gender diversity today, you’ll be ahead of the game when things return to normal.

Tony Restell is the founder of You can find Tony on Twitter.

Read more in Diversity

Tony Restell is the founder of social media agency and helps candidates and recruiters leverage social media. You can find Tony on Twitter (@tonyrestell) or join him on one of his forthcoming webinars, where he’ll walk you step by step through the processes he uses to get results for recruiting teams on social media.