‘Unconscious bias’ leads organizations to overlook young women: Study

Many businesses underestimate young women as too young, inexperienced for leadership

OTTAWA — Many Canadian organizations hold unconscious or unintentional bias toward young female employees, according to a new study by the Conference Board of Canada.

Young women are often underestimated as too young or too inexperienced to take on leadership roles, found the study. In response, women are lowering their career expectations, which has negative results both for their own careers and for the success of their company.

“This 'unconscious bias' means young women are consistently underestimated and overlooked, right from the outset of their careers,” said Ruth Wright, director of human resource management research at the Conference Board.

“Organizations need to implement objective and transparent talent management practices that guard against unconscious bias. Otherwise, the effects are both cumulative and costly — for young women who are denied access to critical developmental opportunities, and for organizations that fail to recognize and develop top talent.”

More than one-quarter (27 per cent) of women aged 22 to 34 are dissatisfied with their career progression, compared with 19 per cent of their male counterparts. Only six per cent of women in this age range are in middle management or higher, compared with 12 per cent of men.

Women are less likely to be identified as high potential employees (45 per cent) as opposed to their male coworkers (53 per cent), despite the fact they are more likely than men to be high performers (74 per cent versus 66 per cent, respectively).

Women in this age group have fewer opportunities to be coached, mentored, gain management experience, or access professional development training. However, they are more likely to take advantage of these opportunities when they are offered to them.

This unconscious bias can effectively “deflate the confidence” of women who are just beginning their careers, leading them to believe they will never reach their ultimate career aspirations and to lower their expectations.

To protect against unconscious bias, employers should take care to:

• Rigorously match high-potential employees with key roles

• Provide all talent assessors in organizations with education about unconscious bias

• Make performance assessments more positive and open

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