Women, Unconscious Bias, and Succession Planning

This morning, I read an article about succession planning that was so right and so wrong.

First the BusinessWomanright: the article raises the very important issue of a double standard that women face. When succession planning is discussed, the article said, typically more questions are raised regarding a woman’s readiness than a man’s.  Women’s abilities, past performance, and achievements are scrutinized, and deficiencies are fatal. Although men are analyzed similarly, if they are found lacking in any of these areas, the evaluators commonly overlook deficiencies because they assume that the men have the potential to develop professionally and fill in the gaps.

This issue, born of unconscious bias, is one of the fundamental causes of women’s slow progress to the highest corporate levels. It demonstrates a key way in which women’s performance is often perceived, evaluated, and remembered differently from men’s performance. It gives rise to the common belief that women have to work twice as hard as men to get half as far. It also explains why women won’t apply for a position unless they meet all the criteria while men will apply if they meet 60% of the criteria – it isn’t that women are lacking in confidence, as the media have assumed, but rather that women understand at least on a gut level that they will be hired only if they can demonstrate their competence with past accomplishments and they won’t be given the benefit of the doubt that men get that they will grow into the position.

So, this is hugely important stuff that needs to be addressed in order to advance women and to ensure the future profitability of companies.

But here’s the wrong: the article proposes as a solution that women strengthen their personal brands to combat the mindset of those who require them to demonstrate established competency as a prerequisite to getting ahead. It advises women to raise their visibility, get feedback, share resources, and be relevant. That’s fine advice, as far as it goes, and all employees would do well to follow it. But why are we (once again) focusing on individual solutions to institutional problems, solutions that “fix the women” but do nothing to address the real problem of the mindset in the first place?

To be sure, both women and their employers bear responsibility for improving women’s advancement. But we are flush now with solutions that women are supposed to implement, and most are no more than stitches on a broken limb. Real progress will be made only when we start correcting the problems inside of companies that hold women back or that give men a leg up.

Here are three things that companies could do to combat the double standard often found in succession planning:

  • Help the succession planners understand the women’s achievement/men’s potential double standard. Yup, right, “training.” Although training by itself is unlikely to make significant change, it is a necessary foundational step. Training can be combined with action steps to reduce unconscious bias and be a centerpiece of a solution.
  • Put processes in place to reduce the double standard. One effective adjustment would be to ensure that the succession planning committee has a diverse membership, because research shows that diversity makes committee members pause in their thinking – the essence of bias reduction! – and focus on facts and not assumptions. Another similar adjustment would be to require all members to articulate the reasons behind their statements, which also reduces bias by causing a shift from automatic to more deliberate thinking.
  • Monitor outcomes to ensure that the double standard is not influencing decisions. Monitoring could include looking at the genders of the employees considered by the committee, the reasons for promoting them or not, and the ultimate decisions made with respect to the careers of men and women. Monitoring will allow companies to learn where their processes are not producing beneficial results, so corrective action can be more targeted. It can also act as a safeguard, giving the company an opportunity to request that the committee re-do its process in a more even-handed way before lawsuits greater harm can occur.

After a company puts those types of solutions in place, it would be a good time to talk about how the women can help themselves to further their progress, with brand management and other steps.

If your company would like training about unconscious bias or solutions tailored to its unique challenges, please contact us.

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