March 5, 2022
Written by: by Ginny Gibson, Professor Emerita, Henley Business School, Reading University
It’s not deliberate, but it’s not ok

This was one of the first comments made last Tuesday when I hosted a virtual panel for CREW UK with a group of senior leaders from the real estate sector, Deepa Deb, George Roberts and Vanessa Hale, to talk about the IWD 2022 campaign theme: #BreakTheBias. First let’s start with the fact that we all have biases and most of these are unconscious.  The challenge is to bring them to fore, so we acknowledge how they influence our professional behaviours and decision making.  This includes not only recognising the conventional biases such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation which are very much a function of our upbringing and experience but also things like affinity bias – naturally being drawn to and favouring people like us. We all need to be more deliberate…think before we speak or act. The importance of listening, awareness and putting yourself in different people’s shoes was stressed. What was unexcepted was that some of the panel and audience recognised how biases had affected their own behaviour – for instance one participant talked about how she had asked to be part of a team by offering to take notes and make coffee!  Luckily her boss thought that was ridiculous and made her a key member with a real strategic role.   

What Gets Measured, Gets Managed

Although unearthing bias can be difficult, the panel believed that data was essential.  Gender pay gap reporting is part of that, but it needs to go further; tracking recruitment, promotions, and bonuses to ensure that the balance is right and setting targets for what needs to be achieved.   Some organisations explicitly build these targets into manager’s performances measures, making them lean into to the issue and take action. The adage What gets measured gets managed comes to mind.

Collecting Data

Collecting data and setting targets were not the only thing organisations were doing.  Everyone had done unconscious bias training but felt that it had limited impact. Initiatives had to be continuous and consistent for instance raising awareness throughout the business by talking opening about bias, reviewing policies to ensure that bias has not been built into them, and more generally thinking differently about how things are done.  For instance, moving away from the black-tie dinner or sporting fixture aimed only at senior colleagues and clients to events which embrace talent across the business – breadth and depth. This is very much an organisational cultural issue, how we do things around here, and leaders need to not only acknowledge but be accountable for breaking the bias in their own organisation.

The Talent Pool

However, if we are to create a truly inclusive real estate sector, there is a need to broaden its appeal and attract a more diverse talent pool.  We heard how apprenticeships had brought in people from very different backgrounds, breaking the affinity bias related to recruiting graduates only from Russel Group universities. The enthusiasm and drive of these apprentices were having a positive impact on the more traditional recruits and their managers! However, ensuring that they feel like they belong is critical, so creating strong role models at every level of the organisation and the potential of employee led networks for different groups so individuals can find their “tribe” were seen as ways to ensure difference is valued and celebrated.  

We can nevertheless still find ourselves in uncomfortable situations where we are subject to or observe biased behaviours. Sometimes it is well-intentioned, for instance not asking a colleague to a client dinner because she has caring responsibilities or suggesting that she wouldn’t want the pressure of taking on major project.   So, what should you do about it – ignore, have a quiet word or publicly call it out?  The panel were clear that ignoring is not an option but that it takes a lot of emotional intelligence to decide the best way to tackle it, thinking how all the parties will react -there is not one size fits all.  Perhaps the best way is just by asking them to explain why they have come to that view or decision. Help them to see their comments or behaviour from the other person’s perspective.  We were reminded that bias is part of the human condition not a flaw.  You are not trying to “fix” someone, just help them understand different points of view…to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Three Key Points

As the hour drew to a close, I reflected on the conversation.  There was so much to consider but three key things stood out for me. First, we all need to be more deliberate, do and say things consciously and intentionally so as not to let our unconscious bias take over.  Secondly, we need to find ways to reveal the biases in our organisations – data, measurement and monitoring are critical to that.  Finally, as leaders and role models, we need to take responsibility not only for ourselves but also for how our colleagues show up.  Ultimately, breaking the bias is a learning and development issue led from the top!

#BreakTheBias #Diversity&Incllusion #IWD2022 #CREWUK