Diversity is a critical input for innovation. Variety of talent, thought, experiences and ideas is the fuel and force that makes innovation possible. Yet many companies are not wired to foster diversity and are riddled with practices that actively impede it. One of the most pronounced workplace biased is a gender imbalance that favors men. Psychology Professors Linda Carli and Alice Eagly likened women's advancement to leadership to a labyrinth, with dead ends and maze-like paths. This is starkly different to a men's path, which can be compared to a road with bumps and potholes.

This maze-like path is what Danni Mohammed, a Global Strategy and Innovation Consultant, has called 'Gendered Navigation'. In developed markets, it often happens as a result of unconscious bias. She says, "We don't consciously know we're excluding women and other minorities in business." Mohammed's latest research pinpoints this unconscious bias to three key factors.

1.     Homophily Bias

This is an innate tendency to bond with others who hold similar values, beliefs and attitudes, and display similar characteristics.  We feel more at ease and familiar with those who we can recognize ourselves in and, often unconsciously, form deeper ties and prioritize connection in such circumstances. For example, until orchestras started hosting blind auditions, they were predominantly comprised of men.

2.     Second Generation Bias

This happens when there are established patterns and values in the workplace that are accepted as normal, yet favor a particular profile, often men.  Think about traditional bonding activities like golf or late-night drinks that tend to exclude women. Exposure gained at these sorts of events can help prop up members, and in doing so, exclude others. This type of bias can often happen subconsciously, and would be a surprise to many in the workplace.

3.     Masculine Leadership Bias

This occurs in workplaces that openly prioritize and idolize masculine working styles, values and traits. Often the motivation may not come from a place of intentional oppression; and is instead driven by a belief that male characteristics are what it takes to get the job done well.

Bias Busting Solution

In all these instances, the bias is not a deliberate choice, but an unconscious way of being. And that's what makes it so harmful. However, there is hope yet. Mohammed believes that to challenge these labyrinth-like walls that inhibit diversity, we need to reconstruct the organization's internal Architecture, Routines and Culture (ARC) that value all gender. She sees the ARC as the fabric of a company, and in many ways can be described as its operating system.  Mohammed says, "True diversity can happen when we redesign these structures holistically versus deploying tactical solutions. We design them in a way so that they positively reinforce one another." By intentionally redesigning these elements in a way that addresses gender bias, companies can thrive.

AI tools

A new spade of AI tools have been designed to tackle bias head on.  One company, Pymetrics, invites candidates to play a series of games in the early rounds of the recruitment process. These games ignore characteristics like race, gender and level of education entirely. Instead, they focus on traits more meaningful to workplace success, like memory and attitude to risk. Another company, Texio, focuses on using machine learning to create job descriptions that optimize appeal to a diverse array of candidates. For example, women are more attracted to jobs that talk about 'developing a team' rather than 'managing a team'. According to Texio, this can help get 25% more qualified talent through the door, as well as bolster diversity.

Rotating Sponsorship Programs

In a bid to tackle homophily head on, successful companies initiate a 'Rotating Sponsorship' Program, where different leaders are tasked with sponsoring and mentoring different employees, on a rotating basis. This prevents the common phenomenon of men in senior leadership positions sponsoring those they deem to be just like them; and opens up mentorship and the chance at leadership positions to those normally left out of the equation. It is an easy and brilliant way to unearth hidden talent.


Instant Feedback Systems

New enterprise applications like Workday and Impraise, are setting out to challenge the traditional appraisal systems that tend to favor men.  To combat the informal day-to-day encouragement than more vocal men tend to receive from mentors, these apps encourage a workplace where everyone receives informal feedback on a regular basis. Feedback can be given between peers, as well as to team leads and supervisors, based on a job well done. This frequent, fair feedback means that everyone has an equal chance to be encouraged, and therefore motivated.