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Is Your Unconscious Bias Stopping Other Women?

Caila Positive Change

International Women’s Day

So today is International Women’s Day (IWD).  It’s a chance to celebrate the success of women and overcome unconscious bias.

I have been asked (by men and women) why we need IWD.  To me it is obvious – women and girls need role models that they relate to.

“Seeing is Believing”

It is all well and good saying that a girl can grow up and be anything she wants to be, but seeing is believing.

Girls must see female CEOs, scientists, politicians, presidents, engineers, architects, policewomen, firefighters and all the other opportunities available.

It is only then that they are truly able to believe that they can be in one of those roles in the future.

So what are the effects of unconscious bias?

1.  Overlooking the Right People

Allie MacAdam talks on The Life Scientific about hiring for Senior Engineers for the Cross Rail project.  She relayed a story of being asked what sort of person she was looking for.

Allie was shocked to realise that in her mind she was looking for “a white, middle aged man”.   This gender bias was because she had only ever seen white, middle aged men operate in those roles.

“Unconscious bias can inadvertently overlook the right people for recognition, role or promotion”

2.  Halo Effect

You can associate positive traits with a person before they demonstrate them.  For example, one of your employees always turns up promptly and the other is occasionally late.

Because you associate being on time as a positive trait, you can unconsciously associate them with being more effective.  As time goes on you can inadvertently give the prompt employee more recognition, increased pay and promotion.

By taking time to evaluate the evidence about what each person contributes, you are able minimise the halo effect and give recognition and reward where it is due.

3.  Unnecessary Barriers

People like people who are similar to themselves.  This is called “affinity bias”.  When advertising for a job you might specify a degree level qualification.

It may be that the position you’re trying to fill doesn’t require a degree. But, because you have a degree, you subconsciously believe that the person coming in should have one too.

Creating unnecessary barriers can prevent the best people from joining an organisation.

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Way Ahead

We all have unconscious biases, but that doesn’t mean we should allow it to make decisions on our behalf.  The first step is recognising your own unconscious bias.

Once you have done this, take time to make evidence-based decisions rather than ones based on bias.  Focus on reality and not perceptions i.e. is that person really more effective or do they just look like they are?

Work with a more diverse set of people and make conscious decisions based on evidence.

“Challenge Your Assumptions”

As part of IWD, challenge your own assumptions by being aware gender bias.  Take time to reflect on the language you use.

Do you always refer to an engineer or senior manager as ‘he’?  Do you inadvertently perpetuate the perception that certain roles are predominantly for men?

Are you creating unnecessary barriers to women achieving in male dominated workplaces? Now is the time to make a change.


Together we will change the world.


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