Tackling discrimination An Agenda for Gender Bias

German companies are starting to appoint more women executives, but more needs to be done to tackle unconscious biases that favor male candidates.
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Many German companies have come closer to meeting the goals they set themselves to bring more women into executive positions. This is especially important bearing in mind the government's new plans to force leading listed companies to allocate 30 percent of non-executive board seats to women from 2016.

But only a very few are truly satisfied with their progress. Those responsible for human resources often feel they are making slower progress in the advancement of talented women than they and the public want.

Entire industries remain dominated by men. At best, women in these business sectors may reach the top rung of human resources management. Meanwhile, media coverage when women exit executive boards – as recently occurred at Deutsche Telekom and tire-maker Continental – feeds doubts about the basic aptitude of women for top executive posts.

Companies have done much in recent years to improve work-life balance to help the advancement of women. However, more subtle obstacles remain and these may be part of the reason even the most qualified and motivated female executives get the short end of the stick in personnel matters.

The knee-jerk reaction to the idea that this barrier could be based on subconscious prejudices is to dismiss it out of hand.

Entire industries remain dominated by men. At best, women in these sectors may reach the top rung of human resources management.

Haven’t we moved past the assumption that women will lose interest in their career goals the moment they become a mother? Fewer people now say, “She’ll probably just get pregnant anyway,” at least out loud, but the stereotype remains.

Moreover, there remain company bosses who believe only a man can display the necessary toughness to achieve their company’s goals in the critical moments of a negotiation.

Research suggests that we are guided by these subconscious gender-specific biases if we don’t actively work against them. To effectively fight these prejudices, it is important to sensitize those making the hiring decisions for management positions. Although stereotypes allow us to make quick decisions, they can also lead to sub-optimal results.

Being conscious of our biases and recognizing how they affect us is essential in avoiding mistakes in judgment. Insight alone isn’t enough, of course, but it can help us to develop processes that make us aware of unconscious prejudices and help us to avoid making distorted decisions.

In human resource management, this means ensuring company processes are “stereotype safe.” This will help reduce our susceptibility to rash decisions. Manuals for human resource officers, for example, must seek to avoid making typical mistakes during interviews by clearly defining the qualifying criteria and utilizing a uniform set of questions.

Trusting women with leadership is only one part of an evolution that will transform companies.

When hiring and managing talented executives, it helps to specify a list of qualifications based on strict criteria for each position before learning which candidates are men or women. All too often candidates that fit the “typical executive” stereotype are seen as more suitable and the job description is then adjusted to fit them.

Thus, a 6-foot-2 man in a staid business suit and expensive polished shoes may satisfy a preconceived notion about executive leadership, but it says nothing about their qualities as a manager.

Trusting women with leadership and making it possible for them to achieve those positions is only one part of an evolution that will transform companies. Generation Y is growing up, a young, educated and motivated generation that believes professional life, family life and free time can be organized in completely different ways than today’s standard.

Therefore, we must think about innovative work models that make different lifestyles and a management career compatible for women as well as men.


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