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Zee Melt 2018: What is unconscious bias and how to combat it

It is not news that we find fewer women at leadership positions across the globe and the reasons for that are many. Burzin Mehta and Sakshi Choudhary from Ogilvy talk about gender bias at workplace and what steps one can take to tackle the same

Sakshi Choudhary

In India, 74% of the purchase decisions are made by women but only 3% women are in a position to influence that decision. So basically, 97% men are trying to sell ideas and products to 74% women. Let that data sink in and let it paint a picture.

It is not news that we find fewer women at leadership positions across the globe and the reasons for that are many. One among them being unconscious bias. But what is unconscious bias?

“Unconscious bias is a mental shortcut. It is everything that is happening outside your awareness zone. It is preferences that you are making about people based on the fact that they are like you, the fact that they are the same gender as you or the fact that they like the same things that you like. These are unconscious biases that our minds are making,” explained Burzin Mehta, Group Creative Director, Ogilvy.

A human mind receives 40 billion bits of information per second but we can actually process only about 40 bits of information per second. So, 99.999996% of the decisions that we are making are unconscious decisions. Over time and conditioning, our mind starts discarding and generalising things and that is how we develop an unconscious bias.

In their session at Zee Melt 2018, Mehta and Sakshi Choudhary, Creative Controller, Ogilvy, spoke about gender bias in the advertising industry and how to take steps to identify the problem and find solutions.

“When I started my career, I thought it was just me who faced this bias until I started realising that it was a ‘woman problem’ and not a ‘me problem’. I read and studied about the problem and it bothered me so much that I wanted to go up to Burzin and tell him about but it took me three months to work up the courage and make up my mind. It took me three months to realise that all the doubts that I was having in my mind about airing the issue was actually a result of biases that I had internalised,” said Choudhary.

Here is Choudhary and Mehta’s guide to steps that one can take to address the issue of gender bias at work place:

Share your vulnerabilities:

Women often fear to own up to their vulnerabilities due to fear of being judged. We already bear the cross of being identified as the weaker sex and no woman wants to add to that assumption or legitimise it by accepting weaknesses. But the only way to get past a weakness is identifying it and seeking help to work through it. Women should be able to own up to their shortcomings and they shouldn’t be judged for it.

Educate your colleagues and bosses:

“Whenever there is a conversation about gender bias, women assume that male colleagues and male bosses must get it but we shouldn’t take that for granted. They are not as aware as we are of the issues that we face,” said Choudhary.

Therefore, the onus of educating male colleagues and male bosses about the situation falls on the women. Discussions are the best way to address a problem and reach a solution that everybody has a say in.

Flag the imbalance:

It is important to call out imbalance wherever you see. Be it jury panels or when it comes to the hiring process. The only way to bring more women into the fold is by acknowledging the fact that there is an imbalance and there is work yet to done.

Highlight stereotypes within:

“I also started pointing out stereotypes within the agency. For instance, why is it that only men are working on bike brands and why is it that only women are working on personal care brands,” said Choudhary.

While the thinking behind this can be that certain people get certain categories better, what people need to understand is that diversity never hurt anyone. A fresh perspective and different point of view can lead to something great.

Push for potential:

Women are taught not to take risks. Men, on the other hand, take more risks and therefore reap greater benefits. Giving example of awards and competitions, Choudhary said that women are more sceptical about sending in their work as they are less confident and they are always taught to second guess themselves.

The problem of gender imbalance also plays a role here because sometimes when the panel consists of all men, women are worried whether they will understand their perspectives.

Call out the boys club:

Giving the example of a personal experience that Choudhary had with a client, she talked about how before she joined the particular brand was managed by an all men’s team. When she joined, her ideas started being shot down. After months of her ideas being rejected, Choudhary pointed it out to her superior. They then decided to test the theory that there was a ‘boys club’ mentality at play here. The agency started sending ideas given by Choudhary but in the name of a man. Sure enough, the ideas started getting approved.

Both men and women have to work towards nurturing each other and creating a workspace that respects everyone and doesn’t discriminate people based on their gender, colour, creed or caste.

Don’t deny women the opportunity:

Many a time women are not put on difficult projects or projects that demand long working hours because of the perception that women can’t dedicate that kind of time. While one might think they are being considerate to women, it is actually a disservice to them. Denying women an opportunity without even consulting them will only lead them to feeling alienated and inferior to their male counterparts. Never deny women the opportunity to something great.

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