Having a diverse workplace has proven to result in greater creativity, better decision-making and a healthier bottom line. Despite many well-intentioned diversity efforts, however, we still find mostly white men at the top of organizations. What’s getting in the way?

The Role of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is one important factor. According to Catalyst, a global nonprofit focused on women’s advancement, “Unconscious biases can have a significant negative impact on workplaces, leading to differences in who gets hired and recruited, who gets offered new opportunities, and whose voice is listened to in meetings.” Although we focus on gender bias in this article, unconscious bias is equally harmful in the areas of race, ethnicity and other ways in which we are different.

Research shows us that if unchecked, our biases cause us to underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s. In one study, substituting a woman’s name (Karen Miller) with a man’s name (Brian Miller) on a resume improved the odds of being hired by more than 60%. If your organization is falling into this trap, you’re probably not hiring the best people for the job — and your results are likely suffering as a result.

Business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, a group designed to reflect the overall U.S. equity market. They examined the size and gender composition of firms’ top management teams from 1992 through 2006 and then the financial performance of the firms. They found that, on average, “Female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value” (emphasis theirs). They also measured the firms’ “innovation intensity” through the ratio of research and development expenses to assets and found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of senior leadership.

If we accept that unconscious bias has a negative impact on organizational performance, what can we do to lessen its impact — or eliminate it altogether?

Challenging Our Biases

The tricky thing about biases is that we all have them. In a Harvard Business Review article, diversity and inclusion strategist Ruchika Tulshyan writes, “We are, in fact, biologically hardwired to align with people like us and reject those whom we consider different.” This hardwiring comes from the days when a quick judgment about friend or foe meant the difference between life or death. Now, however, those primitive parts of our brain aren’t so helpful. Increasing our awareness of when biases may be influencing us and questioning our assumptions is critical. We can do so by inviting others to challenge our thinking or by “flipping the script” and asking ourselves if we’d be making the same decision if someone of a different profile were involved.

For example, if you are hesitating to promote a female team member because you’re not sure she has what it takes to succeed at the next level, ask yourself:

  • Which skills are critical in the new position?
  • What opportunities have you given this candidate to demonstrate these skills?
  • What kinds of challenges has she successfully overcome in the past?
  • Most importantly, “If she were a man, would I have the same doubts?”

As leadership consultants who focus on advancing women in the workplace, our clients tell us about the barriers that organizations unwittingly put in their way. One woman who works on the trading floor of a global financial firm said that her male peers invited a client she works closely with to play golf and didn’t think to include her. When she asked them why they didn’t invite her, they told her they assumed she didn’t play golf. Being left out of these informal bonding opportunities makes it difficult for women to build the trust and relationships that result in lucrative deals and subsequent advancement.

Executives often believe they are hiring and promoting people fairly when, in fact, they are missing the mark. In a Harvard Business Review article, Facebook’s global director of diversity, Maxine Williams, cites research demonstrating that individuals who believe they are objective are often most likely to apply unconscious bias.

What can leaders do to ensure that they make decisions based on the criteria that really matter? Catalyst suggests taking these actions to combat unconscious bias:

  • Enlist stakeholders from a range of backgrounds to help make decisions more inclusive, including equal numbers of men and women.
  • Give others — particularly people who are different from you — a chance. Be open to learning from them as much as they can expect to learn from you.
  • Intentionally mentor and sponsor people who are not like you.

When you see someone make a judgment based on vague criteria, such as “cultural fit,” call it out, and find out what’s really at the root of their discomfort. The more we question our assumptions and become aware of how we can use unbiased information to make decisions, the better able we will be to give opportunities to the people who can achieve the best results for our organizations.

That way, we can all thrive.