CIO Upfront: Demystifying (unconscious) bias

How tall are you? Did you ever think your height might have had an influence on the job you’re in?

Most people wouldn’t view height as a requirement for any given job (unless you’re a pole vaulter perhaps) yet in the US a study in 2008 found that while only 15 per cent of the average population is over six foot tall, 60 per cent of US corporate CEOs are over six foot tall.

Surely that’s just a blip, some kind of aberration right? Well, no.

Similar results are recorded in the military (if you want to be a general, be tall) and even among US presidents - the last president whose height was below average was elected in 1896. Since then, they’ve all been above average height.

Clearly nobody puts this in the job ad (“Help wanted, must be taller than everyone else”) and recruiters and boards don’t consider the height of the candidates before them when choosing who to short list, yet clearly it plays a part.

This is unconscious bias - something that happens despite our efforts and without any direct intention on the part of the person doing the hiring.

For the executive team or CIO trying to build a multi-disciplinary team, diversity is a requirement rather than a 'nice to have' check-the-box activity. Keren Phillips, Weirdly

In this case, there’s a good psychological reason for hiring tall people to be the boss - psychologically, looking up at someone makes us happier than looking down at someone. It’s an odd reason but clearly it has an impact. I work with Dale who is taller than average and it’s often entertaining to see how a room full of people will respond to her height and assume she’s in charge.

But there are other forms of unconscious bias that are more of a problem for job seekers. Bias against gender for certain roles, against race, age, even sexuality. None of these things actually influence a person’s ability to do most jobs but the tendency to hire people who are like us is intrinsic and can be hard to ferret out.

Some companies have boards and executive teams that are entirely made up of white middle aged men from Christchurch and while on the surface that might be fine, underneath it’s a problem. People with the same background and same skill set tend to have the same outlook and the same approach to problem solving. That can be a problem if you’re facing new issues or have to adapt to a new world order.

We are attracted to those with similar views and values for a reason. In the old days (before the internet. Indeed, before the industrial revolution) we lived together with similarly minded folk for safety. It made sense to surround ourselves with people who shared our views and who wanted the same thing from life.

These days we need to work against that urge, especially in business. If we surround ourselves with people who look at the world in a totally different way, we ensure we’re not surprised by a sudden change in the operating environment.

But here at Weirdly we like to flip things on their ear so let’s look at unconscious bias through the other end of the telescope. Can you use unconscious bias to your benefit as a job seeker?

The good news is, yes you can. You can use a company’s unconscious bias to your benefit. You can identify those companies that don’t support your own biases and apply accordingly.

You didn’t think you were free of unconscious biases did you? Everyone’s got them so why not use them to your advantage. Work out what you bring to your role, and what is missing from a company’s portfolio of skills and biases. If the company is the sort that sees value in culture and in diversity then you’re away. If not, then why waste your time banging your head against that particular closed door? Simply move on to the next opportunity.

And for the executive team or CIO trying to build a multi-disciplinary team, diversity is a requirement rather than a “nice to have” check-the-box activity. People with different backgrounds bring different points of view to the table and that can provide cut through in the unlikeliest of ways. By encouraging and embracing different world views, even ones like height, managers and team leaders can become more productive and deliver a better outcome for all concerned.

Editor’s note: Keren Philllips is CMO of Weirdly, a recruitment firm “that puts culture first and foremost”.

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