You're Probably Biased at Work. Here's How to Stop It. New research looked at hard data to find solutions.
Everyone suffers from bias, despite their best intentions. And that bias can manifest itself in ways we don't always intend -- including how opportunities are and aren't doled out in the workplace.
Recently, a trio of researchers used sensors to see if they could distinguish any differences in day-to-day behavior between male and female employees. Their goal was to eliminate the type of bias that can occur in self-reported polls about behavior.
To study this, the researchers looked at a company where women made up just under 40 percent of entry-level employees and 20 percent of employees at the second-highest level of seniority. For four months, 500 male and female employees at this company wore badges with sensors in them that recorded their movement, speech patterns and proximity to one another. The researchers then monitored who the subjects communicated with and who led conversations. Though the data was anonymous, the research team collected information about a given person's gender, role and how long they had worked for the company.
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Although they approached the investigation with the hypotheses that perhaps the female employees had less access to mentors or did not advocate for themselves with management as much as their male counterparts, the researchers found that this was not the case.
"We found almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role," the researchers wrote in a summary of their findings in Harvard Business Review. "We found that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work, and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren't advancing and men were."
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They concluded that differences in men and women's behavior aren't what leads to gender inequality in the workplace -- entrenched bias is the culprit.
So what can you do in your own company to make sure that bias doesn't impact your hiring and promoting decisions? The researchers recommend instituting training programs to reduce bias among management and people in the position to bring on new team members. You also might want to consider making a policy that, for all new open jobs, you interview and recruit people from a variety of backgrounds.
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Also, look at the responsibilities your employees have outside the office. Think about ways to make it easier for both women and men to have flexible schedules, especially given that women often have social pressures to take on more family and household obligations.
Finally, determine where the pipeline to managerial and executive positions begins to trend more towards men. Collect data on exactly when these shifts happen in order to identify their specific causes (e.g. higher-ranking positions and their responsibilities require more late nights), then come up with pointed solutions (e.g. flexible morning schedules to accommodate childcare). From there, measure the effectiveness any solution you implement. ("Since we implemented this policy, have those who have taken advantage of it advanced?") This way, mitigating inequality is a science, not a guessing game.