Lisa Rubinstein

Overcoming Unconscious Bias to Boost Gender Diversity

Lisa Rubinstein, CEO of the Institute for Human Potential describes herself as a Neuro Evangelist, and is another exceptional female leader we have met recently. We were thrilled when Lisa offered to contribute a guest post to our Gender Equality blog. Lisa provides an important insight into how neuroscience explains our tendency towards unsconscious bias, and how we can all overcome our programming to embrace gender diversity…

Why is it still so difficult to achieve gender equality in the workplace?

McKinsey’s report, Diversity Matters, demonstrated the financial and strategic advantages of a diverse workforce. But, as of 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 25% of organisations reporting still have no women in key management roles.

People are biased

Neuroscience offers an understanding of the challenges, and shows how to increase diversity in the workplace. This starts with the recognition of how our unconscious bias governs our decisions.

Every brain is uniquely wired, creating our personal worldview and bias. Unfortunately, bias is deeply unconscious, automatic and incessant. While mindfulness and understanding can help, we always default to an automatic response. Everyone has some form of bias. It’s normal and not a defect of character.

Because it’s so unconscious, we’re rarely aware of the extent it runs our lives. Curious about your unconscious bias? Try this online test. However, there are ways you can use this to your advantage to advance your career and increase acceptance for diversity on a team and organisational level.

We are wired to connect

One of the brain’s primal drives is to build relationships. In caveman days this was necessary for survival. Social isolation can still hurt us, affecting our mental functioning, overall health and well-being. Social isolation is actually as damaging to our health as smoking.

To advance your career, you can tap into this drive to connect and nurture your social networks. Building social connection as part of the corporate culture will also increase people’s appetite for diversity. Their bias for connection will lead them to look for similarities in each other, breaking down barriers and building a greater acceptance for differences.

The brain craves certainty

We are specific about who we want to connect with: people who look, think and act like us . We can then better predict what they might say and do. Like, likes like.

A financial services client of mine who I’ll call Kate was seeking a promotion in a highly political corporate culture. But, Kate’s former boss, Joe, was blocking her, even while praising her accomplishments.

We developed a collaborative strategy to first engage people in more senior roles who didn’t know her, but were open to meeting for a cup of coffee just to get to know each other. She nurtured those relationships, turning them into advocates. They independently began to challenge Joe’s attitude towards Kate. One day Joe offered to mentor her into a more senior role.

To accelerate your own career, you need to focus on building your brand and becoming known. But go where the energy flows and first direct your effort towards those people who seem open and interested. They can then help you with others who might be a tougher sell.

We need to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable

While we want to surround ourselves with like-minded people, we need to do just the opposite .

Mindfulness is important to recognise the automatic bias, and push past it. So, instead of, “You’re the reason I feel uncomfortable.” Think, “What’s my bias here?”

Social learning is critical to helping each other embed new habits. When an entire team or company takes on being open to new and different, people naturally support each other to push past the discomfort and recognise it for what it really is – a window into a new worldview and an opening to new possibilities.

Lisa Rubinstein is the CEO of the Institute for Human Potential that links neuroscience to everyday language through social learning to build diverse, peak performing teams and companies. She is also Board Co-Chair of the Women’s Indigenous Network, a diverse not-for-profit organisation that promotes leadership pathways for Indigenous women, and founder of Women Strong, a group dedicated to supporting women in leadership and advancing gender parity.

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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Founder

Mother, wife, daughter, determined dreamer. Lover of books. Background in Human Resources leadership in global organisations.