I know that raising awareness of a social problem is a necessary first step to solving it. But sometimes its downright discouraging to see yet another study showing that unconscious bias hurts working women. Last week, the focus was on a Fortune journalists’ collection and analysis of performance reviews. Not only did women receive more critical feedback from their (male and female) managers than men, but their reviews were more personal and personality-based. Even the more unusual accounts of unconscious bias (e.g. how transgender people’s before-and-after sex change experiences illustrate gender bias at work) tell the same, sad story.
So today I’m happy to write about a piece penned by a Standard Chartered Bank executive, because it actually shows an effort to do something about it!
Let’s suspend cynicism about corporate “puff pieces” for the moment, and just focus on the story. Basically, Standard Chartered noticed that despite significant (even majority) female representation at the very top level of sales within a certain division, things looked very different further down the corporate hierarchy. Though women entered the firm at a 50/50 ratio to men at the most junior level, their promotions and titles stalled before reaching the Managing Director level.
To make a long story short, Standard Chartered analyzed and discussed the issue with their staff. They realized that a major reason women were not being promoted was their lack of international experience. Female staff were less likely to take on international assignments (or presumably request) due to family commitments, particularly during certain years when they had young children.
There’s nothing wrong with considering international experience as a factor for promotion, especially for an international bank with international clients. However, its not the only thing that matters in a promotion decision and managers at the bank decided to be more aware of how they were making decisions. The story has a happy ending for the women at Standard Chartered, as ultimately more female managers were promoted even without international experience if they had other redeeming qualities that overcame this deficiency.
Greater awareness of decision-making tendencies that hurt female promotion rates is one way of being constructive. A few other possibilities in this situation:
- The bank could have offered better relocation and support packages for anyone taking an international assignment (which would benefit both male and female employees willing to relocate)
- The company could be explicit about the international assignment’s value to the firm and one’s career within the company, which would help employees better plan for work-life conflicts and events. This, again, would actually benefit both male and female employees.
- Where international experience is necessary for promotion, the bank could explicitly tie a promotion to an international assignment for a candidate who had all other requisite qualities. This would reduce the risk of moving an entire family. Again, this would benefit both male and female employees.
Ultimately, the moral of the story is that there are ways to improve gender diversity without sacrificing merit or resorting to tokenism. It just takes a bit of effort.