Minimising unconscious bias in the workplace: strategies for tackling gender stereotypes and improving workplace productivity

By Laura Wood

Laura represented Monash University at the 2016 OECD Forum in Paris.  


Gender stereotypes permeate all aspects of social life, including that relating to the paid workforce.  The persistence of gender stereotypes are a powerful factor in the perpetuation of gender inequality and hinder individuals’ ability to achieve potential by restricting choices and opportunities.  This paper aims to highlight the impacts of gender stereotypes on women’s participation in the paid workforce and contribute to the exposure of the link between gender stereotypes and the perpetuation of gender inequality.  Whilst there is mainstream recognition of interactions between gender equality and female participation in the paid workforce, there is lack of acknowledgement and action within policy and programmatic activity relating to the dismantling of gender stereotypes as a strategy to support the promotion of gender equality and economic growth.  The paper will highlight strategies for minimising the effects of unconscious bias in recruitment in the workplace as an intervention for challenging gender stereotypes in support of gender equality and smart economics.  This paper focuses on ‘gender’ in unconscious bias, however unconscious bias also relates to race, ethnicity, age and other identity characteristics.  The paper’s recommendations can be adopted in both the public and the private sector- interventions which fall out of the higher-level strategies may vary depending on sector and context.

Policy Recommendations

1)    Private sector in Australia to adopt the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Ethical Leadership’s framework for minimising the effects of unconscious bias:

a)    Raise awareness and provide strategies and tools for effective slower, conscious thinking in bias hot spots, including unconscious bias training for staff;

b)    Use of measurement, reporting and reflection tools to see how unconscious knowledge can lead to bias, and promote use decision-making and problem solving tools;

c)     Audit and redesign of systems and processes to promote images of diverse individuals on websites and social media career sites, including those which challenge gender stereotypes;  

d)    Ensure a gender balance on recruitment panels; ensure names and potentially other demographic information are not visible when analysing applications and adopt gender targets and quotas for shortlisting of roles;

e)    Review new and existing policies to ensure these do not support gender stereotypes or gender bias;

f)     Support both women and men to adopt family leave and flexibility entitlements; and

g)    Report on the proportion of women applying for roles and gender breakdown of successful candidates and report on the gender breakdown of teams, departments and the organisation.

2)    For the Australian government to implement a ‘name blind’ or ‘demographic’ blind recruitment commitment, similar to that of the Victorian state government and United Kingdom.

3)    Australian private and public sector workforces to support the adoption of workplace flexibility and parental leave policies for both women and men to support workplace retention and gender equality.


We live in a world of gender stereotypes. We are surrounded by messages about women being weak and men being strong, about women being better carers and men being better at earning money (Jolly, 2004). Stereotypes have a strong influence on what is perceived ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ and what is deemed suitable employment for particular groups of women and men (GenderHub 2016).  Gender stereotypes are generalised and over-simplified messages and images about women and men and their differences that expose preconceived attitudes and judgements (GenderHub 2016). They are based on socially constructed norms, practices and beliefs and often intersect with other stereotypes rooted in race, ethnicity, class, ability, religion, age and so on (Cook and Cusack 2010; Walby 2005) reflecting underlying power relations (UN Women 2011).  Gender stereotypes are often so deeply entrenched in societies and internalised by individuals that they are frequently undetected or are perceived as ‘natural’, beyond question (GenderHub 2016)

Gender stereotypes contribute to overt and covert, direct and indirect, and recurrent gender discrimination and inequality (UN Women 2011). Discrimination, whilst a human rights issue, also limits labour productivity and impedes national and international policy goals of economic growth.  Evidence demonstrates that gender equality can increase labour efficiency and the available talent pool, supporting businesses to expand, innovate and compete (OECD 2012). Whilst gender stereotypes are not the only cause of gender inequality, they have often been neglected in policy and provide a new entry point for tackling it (GenderHub 2016). 

Gender stereotypes need to be challenged and less rigid ideas about what it means to be a woman and man need to be promoted in a range of domains, including the paid workplace, if we are to be successful in the new transformative sustainable development agenda. The 2030 Agenda aims to reduce poverty (Goal 1) and inequalities (Goal 10), to achieve gender equality (Goal 5) and to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (Goal 8) (International Labour Organization 2016).  This paper recommends implementing training and other strategies for minimising the effects of unconscious bias in recruitment and retainment in the paid workplace to support the pursuit of challenging gender stereotypes, promoting gender equality and improved productivity.  It should be noted a range of strategies at varying levels of intervention should be implemented to support such work, however the focus of this paper relates to unconscious bias.

What’s in a name? Removing names from job applications.

Numerous studies have involved recruiters reviewing identical resumes; the only difference being the candidate’s gender, for example Sally and Sam.  Results have demonstrated there is often a bias towards recruitment of men.  A US study demonstrated that recruiters ‘were significantly more likely to hire the man, pay him a higher salary, and see him as more worthy of mentoring’ (Mervis, 2012: 1592).  A 2014 Australian study involving Hays Recruitment demonstrated that men and women were both more likely to hire a man for the job (Hays Recruitment and insync surveys, 2014).  In late 2015, the United Kingdom Prime Minister announced that organisations from across the public and private sector would pledge to recruit on a ‘name blind’ basis for graduates to reduce discrimination (United Kingdom Prime Minister’s Office, 2015). Other OECD member countries such as Germany, France and Sweden are already adopting such practices (Chaudhry, 2015).  Approaches to minimise the effects of unconscious and in some case conscious bias in recruitment practices, such as the removal of names and other demographic information, could be helpful in working to eliminate gender and other biases in the Australian public and private sectors.  Further work to minimise the effects of unconscious bias to support women’s retainment in the workforce, would also be valuable, for example, the promotion of workplace flexibility for both women and men and parental leave for both women and men.

Gender stereotypes: how do they impact women’s participation and experience in the paid work force?

Gender stereotypes create barriers to women’s participation in the formal labour force (GenderHub, 2016).  Stereotypes regarding a ‘women’s place being in the home’ and not in public life are interconnected with ideas that a women’s role is having children and being the primary carer for them (Greany, 2012; Ustek, 2015).  Such ideas can inhibit women’s ability and confidence to pursue formal employment due to socially constructed expectations regarding reproductive responsibilities (Evans, Edwards, Burmester, May, 2014; Greany, 2012; Heilman, 2012: 113). Despite the mass entry of women into the paid labour force globally, women’s labour force participation rates across the world vary far more than those of men. If women are able to participate in paid work they continue to be limited to certain sectors, occupations and activities, which consequently don’t hold the same status, remuneration and benefits compared to work stereotypically perceived as men’s (GenderHub, 2016; Strachan, Bailey, Wallace, Troup, 2013). 

The gender pay gap (lower pay for women doing the same work as men) (Lips, 2013; Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2016), denial of promotions to leadership, limited chances of professional development training, increased casualization of women workers and lower levels of work opportunities are also all influenced by gender stereotypes (Bobbit- Zeher, 2011; GenderHub, 2016; UN Women 2011). Stereotypes justify gender discrimination more broadly and reinforce and maintain historical and structural patterns of inequality (UN Women 2011).

Improving gender balance: a human rights issue, but also smart economics

Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if employers broaden their recruitment pool, they have a better chance of finding suitable candidates (Kandola, 2009). An investigation by ‘Startgey&’ suggests that matching female to male employment rates globally would significantly increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - in the United Kingdom and United States by 5% each; and in emerging economies, by up to 34% (Aguirre, Hoteit, Rupp, and Sabbagh, 2012).  In 2013 Goldman Sachs suggested that closing the gap between male and female employment rates could increase the level of Australian GDP by 13% (Ferguson, 2013).  A McKinsey study found that companies with three or more women in senior management functions, score more highly, on average, on organisational criteria (such as leadership, direction, accountability, coordination and control, innovation, external orientation, capability, motivation, work environment) than companies with no women at the top in (McKinsey & Company, 2010; in Wood, 2013). Numerous studies have also demonstrated that workplace diversity can increase productivity (Saxena, 2014).

Unconscious bias training

Training to minimise the effects of unconscious bias to support workplace recruitment and retainment strategies is an effective approach for challenging gender stereotypes, improving workplace diversity and inclusiveness and reaping the benefits they’ve been shown to generate across many different areas of business performance (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012).

Institutional actors make decisions to recruit, terminate, promote and transfer workers (Burgess and Borgida, 1999).   Consciously or not, individuals can translate ideas about gender into discriminatory behaviours (Bobbit- Zeher, 2011; Poirier, 1999).  Unconscious bias is the product of unconscious knowledge and processing, typically operating with little mental thinking together (Bargh, 1994), to produce biased responses (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012: 5).  Whilst there are decisions more consciously informed, through training and reflection, another decision making process flies under the radar – rapid-fire associations and assumptions, based on our prior experience, often linked to stereotypes, that operate outside our conscious awareness (Roxburgh, E. Hanse, K. (nd[LC1] ). Unconscious bias against women is result of two sources of error (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012).  Firstly, many of the beliefs about women in general are based on old fashioned and inaccurate stereotypes. Secondly, the inaccurate stereotypical beliefs affect judgments and decisions about particular women (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012).  For instance, individuals may have a strong unconscious association between men and leadership and women and domesticity, and may be unaware of the impact of the association on their response to situations, including recruitment. Unconscious bias can be unintended but no less real in its impacts (Mervis, 2012), however it should be noted it can be changed through the task of bringing unconscious interpretation into conscious awareness (AIM, 2012).

Unconscious gender bias is difficult to detect because it is ‘unconscious’ and pervasive because it is engrained in numerous cultural norms reinforced through stereotypes (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012).  There is compelling evidence that workplace structures and cultures reinforce certain norms and values and perpetuate processes of unconscious bias that afford men comparative advantages (Evans, Edwards, Burmester, May, 2014: 502). A meta-analysis of 117 studies found that women who aspire to leadership and other male dominated occupations face significant barriers that their male counterparts do not, for example, perceptions that they are less hireable, have less potential to succeed in their careers and less competent than male peers who perform at the same level (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012).  Cultural norms imply that women should be excluded from certain roles due to a lack of skills associated with stereotypical characteristics of what it means to be a ‘woman’.  This is manifested in the gendered language we sometimes hear in the workplace and in ‘the perceptions’ that surround women in leadership, for example, that ‘women are not as ambitious as men’ (AIM 2012: 5).  Such ideas are normally justified by women’s unsuitable biological or psychological predisposition in comparison to men.   Additionally, women are stereotyped as highly suitable for other roles, which subsequently fail to hold the same status, pay and security (GenderHub, 2016), for example, paid care and domestic roles (Dicicco, 2014).  Consequently this can influence the kinds of jobs women and men apply for and whether or not they are selected for such roles (GenderHub, 2016; Roxburgh, E. Hanse, K. (nd).

Other actions for organisations: responding to unconscious bias through recruitment

In 2013, New Zealand’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs released a report, which highlighted that a strategic and systematic approach is required, with multiple interventions, at various levels, to support cultural change to reduce the effects of unconscious bias (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012, in New Zealand’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs). The University of Melbourne’s ‘Gender Equality Project: Evaluation Bias and Backlash: Dimensions, predictors and Implications or Organisations’ highlights a number of strategies which target the bias of individual workers (awareness of own unconscious bias) to a more macro- organisational level (cultural change) for minimising the impacts of unconscious bias.  The following framework mirrors the University of Melbourne’s ‘level of change’ approach and includes possible interventions to support the minimisation of unconscious bias in the recruitment process:

*   Framework based on the Effective Diversity and Inclusion figure (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012). 

** Examples of interventions were from a range of sources including (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012; Evans, Edwards, Burmester, May, 2014; Kandola, 2009; UN Women 2011 Beattie & Johnson, 2012; Grey, 2015).


Women’s marginalisation in paid employment is due to long standing gender inequalities and discrimination (GenderHub, 2016). The paid workforce is one domain whereby gender stereotypes are produced and reinforced, however there is opportunity to challenge and transform traditional ideas about women and men in support of gender equality and increased workplace productivity and economic growth. Training and other interventions aimed at minimising the impacts of unconscious bias in recruitment are strategies to support broader work, which challenges gender stereotypes and the structural inequalities that support them.  As highlighted in the paper, unconscious bias interventions must be multiple and at varying levels within organisations, for example in the formal sphere through policy, systems and processes, as well as informal cultural change work which focuses on gender norms and supports individual critical reflection and awareness of one’s own unconscious bias (Batliwala 2008 and Rao and Kelleher 2005; in Gender Hub 2016). Workers can be encouraged to use varying strategies and tools to slow down their thinking and minimise bias on selected decisions (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012). Over time, the continual use of tools and procedures can improve decision-making across a wide range of tasks (Genat, Wood, Sojo, 2012). Gender stereotypes need to be challenged and less rigid ideas about what it means to be a woman and man need to be promoted if we are to be successful in the new transformative sustainable development agenda (ILO, 2016).

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