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Unconscious Bias in the C-Suite: A Deep Dive into Its Impact on DEI

Unconscious Bias in the C-Suite: A Deep Dive into Its Impact on DEI

October 2023


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Unconscious bias shouldn’t be allowed to be a member of your executive team or board. 

Close your eyes for a minute. Imagine the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a large-cap company meeting with the company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO).  

The CHRO wants a larger budget allocation due to fears that there is bias in the hiring process—bias that could be solved by investing in software that keeps applicants anonymous.  

The CFO doesn’t want to allocate more funds to the CHRO, believing it would be a waste of resources. 

Now, open your eyes again. What did you imagine the CEO to look like? Maybe an authoritative, older man with a commanding voice? And the CFO? Could they be a somewhat younger man with glasses? As for the CHRO, you probably envisioned a middle-aged woman. 

If our assumptions about your mental images were correct, that’s an instance of unconscious bias. 

The truth is everyone harbors unconscious biases. That is why it’s crucial to know our own unconscious biases to prevent them from infiltrating the C-suite or the boardroom. 

How Does Unconscious Bias Express Itself in the Workplace? 

You might be thinking, “I could have unconscious biases, but the workplace culture I’ve built is entirely fair and equitable!” While that could indeed be true, the likelihood is much higher that you simply aren’t aware of the biases present in your workplace culture. 

Unconscious biases can negatively impact various aspects of your business, ranging from selecting board members and hiring for the C-suite, to influencing the treatment of entry-level employees and decisions regarding promotions. 

These biases can also shape whose ideas you consider important, whose concerns you give credibility to, and how you approach the creation of your customer experience. 

Unconscious bias isn’t always manifested as overt racism or sexism; this subtlety makes it even more challenging to detect. For example, did you know that approximately three-fifths of American CEOs are over six feet (1.82 meters) tall, even though only 15% of American men are that tall? This is an example of unconscious bias, where taller men are perceived as more authoritative and “manly”, hence deemed more suitable for leadership. 

Height isn’t the sole criterion by which we unconsciously judge people. Over a fifth of adults above 50 report encountering age-based bias at work after turning 40. For instance, employers might assume diminished interest in career progression due to having already “peaked.” 

The reality is that unconscious bias is significantly more prevalent than we realize. This, in fact, is the core issue. Six in ten employees report encountering bias in the workplace, yet almost all employers believe their companies are unbiased. There’s evidently a disconnect somewhere. 


How Do My Unconscious Biases Affect My Company’s DEIB? 

1. Unconscious Bias, Talent Acquisition, and Organizational Culture 

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) programs aim to create fairer and more equitable workplaces. But unconscious biases can harm these efforts and undo the good that DEIB programs can do. 

Unconscious biases can start impacting the effectiveness of DEIB programs from the hiring stage. For example, racial minorities are often passed over for jobs in favor of white people, even when they have the same qualifications. This is the case even when race isn’t specifically disclosed. Applicants with “non-white” sounding names are 50% less likely to get hired than applicants with white sounding names (like Pam, John, Emma) even if they’re of the same race. 

Unconscious bias can also start creeping in long before you start screening CVs. It can start with the language used in a job description. For example, if you reach out to a woman and tell her you are looking for a “Chairman,” that is not exactly inclusive. 

Even if job applicants are lucky enough to make it into your workforce and avoid being pushed out by unconscious bias, unconscious bias can still make your workplace hostile towards them—even if you are doing everything in your power to make them feel welcome.  

For example, when employees suspect they are being treated differently because of unconscious biases, they are more likely to isolate themselves to avoid having to interact with people who may unconsciously consider them to be worth less. Nearly half of Black and Latina women report being mistaken for administrative staff by colleagues or office visitors—a perfect example of the kind of behavior that can lead to alienation. 

Unconscious bias can also lead to minorities in the workplace receiving unequal feedback (i.e., being more likely to receive criticism and less likely to receive praise) and unequal opportunities (i.e., being more likely to be passed over for promotions). 

2. Unconscious Bias in the C-suite

The fact that only 4% of C-suite executives are women of color should tell you everything you need to know about unconscious bias in the C-suite. But executive recruitment isn’t the only C-level aspect that is impacted by it. 

Unconscious bias can also have an effect on how you lead. If leaders inadvertently prefer people (and their departments) who have similar histories or qualities to them, this is known as “affinity bias” and may result in an unfair allocation of resources among team members. 

When it comes to essential or extremely important tasks, unconscious bias may cause leaders to give the most critical roles to those who are most like them, too.  

Unconscious bias can influence the succession planning process as well, with unconsciously biased executives more inclined to fill their talent pipeline with individuals who are most similar to them. 

How Do I Find Out If I Have Unconscious Biases?

Everyone has unconscious biases. The question then becomes: to what extent do these biases impact your decision-making? 

To explore this, Harvard introduced the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test is designed to highlight biases rooted in associations.  

You can take the IAT for free to examine your unconscious biases, ranging from gender roles to biases involving the transgender community, by clicking here

You Need Leadership That is Serious About DEIB

It’s unlikely we will ever completely escape unconscious bias, instead we should seek conscious inclusion. That’s why it’s so important to foster diversity in the workplace, allowing for a varied range of voices and opinions to contribute to decision-making—spanning from grassroots levels to the C-suite and the board.  

Executives experienced in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging can aid you in reshaping your workplace culture into an inclusive environment, where everyone has an equal opportunity for advancement. Through this process, they can drive your growth. More diverse businesses have a 70% higher probability of capturing broader market segments. 

More diverse businesses have a 70% higher probability of capturing broader market segments.

At Stanton Chase, we’ve assisted prominent companies for decades in not only locating diverse leadership but also identifying leaders who are champions of DEIB. We’re here to guide you in effecting transformative change throughout your organization. 

Click here to connect with one of our consultants. 

About the Author

Eleri Dodsworth is a Partner at Stanton Chase London and serves as the Regional Leader for the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging practice group for the EMEA region. She also represents the firm on the AESC Diversity Leadership Council for Europe and Africa. 

Eleri is a passionate advocate for equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging. She strongly believes in helping her clients build diverse leadership teams, seeing diversity and inclusion as essential values that significantly impact business performance. Eleri specializes in placing leaders at the C-suite level, divisional directors, and non-executive directors in listed companies, as well as in private equity, family-owned, and privately owned businesses. 

Valeria Cox is a Managing Partner at Stanton Chase Santiago and serves as the Regional Leader for the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging practice group in the LATAM region. She is also a marketing executive with over 20 years of experience in various industries, consistently delivering value in strategic planning, marketing research, consumer behavior, CX, and loyalty planning. 

Valeria possesses significant experience in gender diversity on boards and at the top management level. Over the past 12 years of her career, she has specialized in diversity and inclusion, and she is a member of several local, regional, and global organizations related to this important topic. 

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