Unconscious Gender Bias: Everyone's Issue

05/27/2015 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

I have been on a quest for two years to understand this million dollar question: Why do women in developed countries still only hold approximately 14% of all leadership roles? I've finally discovered the answer!

It's not because women haven't been in the pipeline long enough. In the US, women started earning the majority of degrees in 1985, which is 30 years of pumping the pipeline, certainly enough time for women to take hold. It's not because of overt sexism (despite things like Gamergate), sexism has continuously gone down over the last 3 decades. Lastly, it's not because of motherhood. In the US women are 50% of the labor force and 40% of primary wage earners. Yet, at the current trajectory, it will take another 3 centuries for women to reach parity with men. What is exceptionally interesting about this lack of balance in male and female leadership, is there are now half a dozen studies, proving that more women in leadership roles leads to greater productivity, creativity, and profitability.

So one might ask - Where are the women?

Ever since Sheryl Sandberg brought attention to the Harvard Business Case Study of Heidi Roizen, a successful start-up venture capitalist, and the Columbia Business School professor that polled his students on the case study (often referred to as "Heidi vs. Howard"), I knew there was something more going on here. In case you aren't aware of the case study, check out this quick video. These unbelievable findings also helped me realize why I had always preferred to report to a male manager vs. a female manager during my corporate career.

There is a silent, yet powerful force - unconscious gender bias and we all have it, men and women. Even if you are pro-women, this bias looms unconsciously unless, conscious action is taken to shift your default mode of thinking. There is actually a neuroscience behind it.

Our minds get used to seeing certain images and then recognize and categorize accordingly, so when something triggers that default image that tells us to identify something, we stay stuck in the same patterns of categorization. For example, for over a 1000 years we have identified males with the words: leader, provider, and driven. We like and respect men when they demonstrate these qualities. Women have been identified with: emotional, supportive, and caring. We find women "likable" when they exhibit these qualities. But, when a woman is seen as a leader and driven, we are unaccepting or judgmental because it goes against our brain's categorization of what a woman is supposed to be. We not only criticize her as cold, power hungry, and out for self, but will prefer a man for the same leadership role with fewer qualifications.

There are many blind studies that prove that when no gender is attached to a resume, a woman will be the preferred if her qualifications are stronger, but when first names are visible, the male is the preferred over the woman in the same scenario. I highly recommend you learn more about the neuroscience behind unconscious gender bias by watching Janet Crawford's talk explaining this in detail. It is fascinating!

This unconscious gender bias is represented everywhere - the film industry, the media, advertising, social media, speaker representation at conferences, stock photography, and children's toys. Nothing is benign; we see it in resume profiles, in orchestra representation, mothers overestimating the ability of their baby sons to walk and under estimating their daughter's ability.

Unconscious gender bias is not a women's issue, it is everyone's issue. The answer to ending gender bias and opening the gates for women to create balance in leadership, elected officials, and in traditionally male dominated industries is to become aware that it exists. We have to start seeing where it shows up and then change it. It's about waking up, becoming conscious to this bias as a function of the brains default categorizations and then learning to override it. After all, we can't change what we don't see.

This is NOT a gender equality issue. It's present everywhere, it effects our perspective. Gender equity is not a woman's issue. We all participate in it. We have to monitor ourselves and we need male participation. If decisions are primarily male, then we need more men to be aware. It only takes one powerful male to champion the issue to make a huge difference.

What can you do? Pay attention to gender bias have conversations around it. It hangs our everywhere, notice it.

More educated women in leadership means reduced poverty, increased business performance, greater group intelligence through diversity of thought and strengths. It will create better work environments - for men too.

Legislator, affirmative action, and policies will not change culture, people change culture. We can't change what we can't see. We all create media. Start noticing the presence or absence of women. We are not to blame for the problem, but we are responsible for a solution. The companies that get this right will have access to incredible markets. The people that get this right will help change the world!