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Confronting the Unconscious Bias Innate in All of Us

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THERESE COFFEY
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If you are six foot tall, in a group of strangers do you tend to speak first to people of a similar height or do you go looking for the smallest person in the room? Why is that? Unconscious bias is innate within each and every one of us. Our instinct will often seek out people we assume are similar to us. In recruitment terms, it can often lead to hiring or promoting people similar to us in terms of values and behaviours creating a mini-me culture.

I am co-chairing the Conservative Women's Forum inquiry on the barriers to the pipeline of female executive talent reaching the boardroom. While Lord Davies of Abersoch has achieved much on the non-executive side, we identified the issue of talented women not making it to the top in proportion to the numbers joining companies at junior entry points.

We have spoken to a number of companies, investors, headhunters, consultants, directors, Chief Executives and Chairmen. We have heard opinions on quotas, mentoring, the costs of childcare, attitudes to flexible working, changes to the voluntary code of headhunters. We also heard about unconscious bias training. Those companies that used this, either for a long time or have recently started, suggested that this had really helped increase the diversity of their companies. Research from McKinsey shows a strong link to increased diversity and business success.

There is a growing awareness of unconscious bias in the corporate world: a survey last year found 79% of HR professionals report it as widespread and more and more companies are taking up training to unlock the talent women represent.

According to one female executive, because unconscious bias is by definition instinctive, no blame can be attached to anyone, so the training is popular across the workforce and can be a highly effective means of spreading diversity awareness. Indeed, it has almost become expected in the corporate world.

PricewaterhouseCoopers recently made training mandatory for all employees, which may be a sign of things to come. This is not unique to them. American-led companies we spoke to have embraced it for all their managers. Some companies, like BAE and RBS are using this extensively in their recruitment and promotion processes.

In today's corporate world, where numbers of men tend to outnumber women at each level up the management chain, if such unconscious bias goes unrecognised and unchallenged, it will be no surprise that the number of male managers and board members will continue to significantly outnumber the females.

This is not just about women. This is about all sorts of people - gender, race, disability- and is a proactive way for companies to not effectively sleepwalk into having mini-me's up and down our corporate boardrooms.

Later this month, our Forum is due to meet the Prime Minister when I hope to share some of the key recommendations from our inquiry. That will include looking at using unconscious bias training within our Party. David Cameron has done more than any other Conservative party leader in our history to ensure we are more diverse but we can always do more. Just like the top companies, our party could benefit from this training too. I think it will be good for recruiting new talent as well as for our work as MPs in our constituencies.

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