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Advancing Women in the Workplace: The Unconscious Bias Dilemma

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BCI Virtual Equinox was held over three consecutive days at the beginning of May 2021. Designed to connect architects, interior designers and design specifiers with product suppliers. Get a glimpse of the industry insight sessions that were held at this virtual event. Below is a transcript from day three featuring Ms Low Chee Yen, the representative at Lean In Malaysia and currently the CEO of UEM.

Advancing woman in the workplace: the unconscious bias dilemma. 


Advancing Women in the Workplace: The Unconscious Bias Dilemma

Stephanie Leong

Our first speaker of the day, Miss Low Chee Yen, the representative at Lean In Malaysia, currently the CEO of UEM Private Limited. Chee Yen is here today to discuss the progress of women in the workplace, specifically in the science and engineering industry, which remains as one of the male dominated fields worldwide. In this section, titled “Advancing woman in the workplace”, she will be talking about a concept commonly known as the unconscious bias dilemma.

Low Chee Yen

Hi, thanks, Stephanie. Good morning everyone, my name is Chee Yen. Thank you, BCI for having me and Lean in Malaysia, on this platform to talk about something that is very close to our heart, which is advancing women in the workplace. So as Stephanie mentioned, my full-time day job is actually with a listed company managing the healthcare support services, which we have about 150 over hospital clients regionally. However, I am today wearing the hat of Lean in Malaysia Board of Advisor and representative hat as I speak to you. Lean In Malaysia is a nonprofit organisation that was set up six years ago amongst a few friends to champion the cause to educate, empower, and enable women to achieve their ambition. So I would like to use the next 20 to 25 minutes to have a conversation with you and share some ideas with you in relation to what we've learned so far on the topic.

Let's do an exercise first. I do not know how many of you are out there, but you know, this would be an exercise that is relevant to both male and female. So, I'm going to ask you to visualise three scenarios. The visualisation is important. So please relax and close your eyes while you actually do this.

Okay, so imagine that we have finally contained and controlled COVID-19. With travel borders lifted and you are planning a vacation at your preferred destination. It could be an island or a big city. So picture the destination. Not having packed and flown for a long time you are rushing to the airport and is one of the final passenger who bought the flight. So equally excited to fly again the pilot steps up from the cockpit and says hello to all the passengers. You arrive at your destination, check into your room deciding to have happy hour. You get down to the bar, and you pass by a conference hall and you see a sign that says ‘International Conference on tunnel construction’. You see hundreds of people gathering in the foyer, as well as in the hall. The conference hall door was ajar. And you could see into the conference hall, you see a keynote speaker standing up on a stage, giving a speech. And the projector screen behind the speaker has a lot of technical drawings. You are there for a holiday so it didn't interest you so you continue to head towards the hotel bar.

So now, you should have a solid picture of all that. I have some questions for you. Was the pilot an Indian lady? Inside and outside the conference hallway you passed by, was it full of women? And the keynote speaker, was she a young female? Executive? Probably looking a little bit like me? Or alternatively, do you imagine someone such as a pregnant lady? It is okay if you answered no to any of these questions. But also ask yourself, what makes you picture those images based on the narratives? It is actually your brain who creates an image on what you're familiar with. And normally we associate, you know, a pilot with a male, you know, associated what we're familiar rather than what is not. And if you imagine tunnel construction, what comes to mind? Do you actually normally see a female? Or do you actually picture a male, that would be the expert in the field? It doesn't mean that you don't like the above idea. It's just that your subconscious brain and based on cultural experience and what you're familiar with and what you're brought up with, the pictures that you’ve seen around you, have actually programed your brain to think about certain things a certain way. And you imagine certain things a certain way as well. So unconscious mind and unconscious bias is really about the unconscious mind producing shortcuts to put together something which is familiar to you in a very short period of time.

The gender gap, I'm sure, you have heard and read a lot of literature and TED talks about why gender parity is important. There is a lot of women in gender empowerment out there. And a lot of organisations and governments are trying to get more women in the workforce. But why is it so important? In simple terms people talk about the economic, positive availability of resources, maximising resources and so on. But in my sense, I just think that, you know, there's about 7.9 billion people on this planet and many of them are women, why are we only using 20 to 30% of this talent.

There's a lot of actions that has been done, there's a lot of policies that have been put in place, but you know, we have seen a lot of progress, but despite this talk, if you look at statistics, females still only contribute about 20 to 30% of senior management. And if you look at corporate Malaysia, and even in regional Singapore and the rest of the countries, female CEOs only comprise of up to 19% of top positions. So, why is it so far away from the 50% quota? There are many reasons. Today what we would like to discuss with you, is mainly on two items, the first is unconscious bias, which is what I just introduced to you in the beginning of the session.

Technically, unconscious bias is the prejudice and the unsupported judgment. Socialists are in favour or against one thing, person or group as compared to another. And sometimes it is unfair, it puts groups in advantage, in positive light. But mostly it puts that group of people in a disadvantaged light. It is wrong most of the time, because your brain makes that judgment in a snap second and it uses instinct instead of rationale. Because of the biases that we are not conscious of, we might not be aware of the reason for our decisions. Many people make their mind up within six seconds without going into details about their decision. One example of this is with resumes. Unconscious bias can disadvantage capable females in the workplace, you know, when we're making hiring decisions. The second thing that we will talk about today is male as allies. And I will elaborate a little bit further, why we increasingly need to not just have women supporting each other, women supporting women in workplace, but we also need males as allies to champion the cause.

So bias is actually quite a complex thing. So it’s not just about gender, it’s also about race, it's about sexual orientation, it's about disability and age. So I’ll tell you a little bit of my story and experience. Many years ago, when I first took on a leadership position, and I had to travel to a foreign country to do the orientation and interview the company that we've just acquired. I was empowered with the task and it was my first meeting with the team members. And the team has to present their plans for the year to me, I didn't speak much obviously, trying to just absorb and listen to a lot of things and halfway through the break, one of the team members silently asked his colleague, to which his colleague kind of murmured something in response to him with a faint smile. Later on, I asked the other colleague, what was that about? To which I found out that the other colleague has actually asked, "hey is that person who came in, you know, what sort of senior management? Was she actually the boss's daughter?" I laugh it off, brushing it off as an innocent remark and question, but I do remember that my body felt a bit tense, signaling that I may be a bit uneasy about that question, although, you know, instantly, you also tell yourself that well, it’s a harmless question. It doesn't mean anything. Reflecting back on that moment, we didn't have the term called unconscious bias to guide and to frame what was that about. And now that I think back, that basically is unconscious bias in play, because the person had made a snap judgment, looked at my age, looked at my sex, because I'm a female, I'm a young executive, they automatically assumed that I got to where I was, because perhaps I'm just a doctor's boss. A lot of people will actually say that, you know, what's the big deal? Some of you may actually ask, you know, it's just general stereotyping in society and what we put labels to people and so on and so forth. But subtly, it actually signals to me and because I felt that my body  tense up, it means that something's not right. He subtly questions whether or not I am capable. There is an imposter syndrome that comes into play. And it might actually cause the other person, because of what he or she might have thought at that time, to really dismiss or discount a lot of my ideas because of how I look. This is just one simple example of how unconscious bias can disadvantage people based on prejudice and how a person looks.

Knowing bias exists is not enough, we need to take steps to counter it. Once we know that bias exists, there's a lot of steps that we need to think about in the workplace. How do we counter it? And a lot of times you fall into bias trap. Bias is not just against women, the biases can also be against men. If you see a more elderly man or a more smarter dressed man, you automatically assume that the person might or might not be the boss in a large group of people, and those are the general biases that we actually input as well.

So that's the common types of biases that women face at work. I spoke about unconscious bias just now. But there's also performance bias that is deeply rooted into how people think. That male versus females abilities are different. We might overestimate males ability, but underestimate females ability, because, especially in things that are typically a male dominated field, such as engineering, or even architecture and so forth. There's attribution bias that is closely linked to performance. Generally, attribution bias is about when we often attribute our own success, because we think that we are capable, and we actually attribute our failures, because that must be something else external factors that have caused it, this is not my fault. But when we look at and judge other people, we always feel that there is a tendency to say that other people's success is because they are lucky, right? Whereas if the other person is unsuccessful, or he or she might not be very good, it's because of capability issues. These are common unconscious bias that we are ingrained with and in relation to women, it is a bit more pronounced.

Another bias is likability bias, especially for women. It is basically rooted on the age old expectations that we expect men to be assertive and we expect women to be more communal and societal. So when females exert themselves, people might not like it. And that's the likability bias that women actually have to deal with.

There is also something called maternal bias. It happens when a female enters motherhood, generally, there might be a bias to think that the woman will not be as committed to work, because now she's got other things to focus on. But when you think about men, the situation is reversed, once a man starts a family, you automatically think that the man would be more responsible right now because he has a family to feed and he will be more committed to work.

Affinity bias is when we tend to like people or gravitate towards people who are similar to ourselves in terms of appearance, ethnicity, age group, and so on. So this would actually lead to hiring bias. There is a potential that when hiring managers actually look at candidates, they tend to hire people who looks more like them. And this perpetuates in the workplace, as men dominate management, they might tend to hire a bit more people who look like them, you know, maybe same sex, so they tend to hire more male versus female. And these are some of the biases that we're talking about.

There are also other concepts like intersectionality. When all this bias actually comes together, age, sex, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation, it compounds the biases that we have against that person. So for example, if I'm a female, young, and I'm of Chinese ethnicity, there would be certain association that is linked to my character or my capability. And likewise, for a male who is perhaps a Caucasian male, who is of a certain senior age, and so on so forth, you might actually perceive that the person is a bit more credible and capable.

Some of the other things that we need to be aware of that disadvantaged women in the workplace is micro aggression. Microaggression is basically comments and actions that demeans or dismiss someone based on their gender or race. It's called microaggression because it is remarks that can be easily brushed off, right, like let’s say for a more senior person to say to a junior lady in work “Oh, you look very pretty today.” And I'm sure a lot of females in the crowd would have experienced that as well. So the question is, how do you respond in a situations like that? Do you be defensive? Do you retaliate? Do you pull the person aside and have a conversation about that? I think the reaction puts a lot of the actions and puts the burden on women and hence unconscious bias training is pretty important so that the male understand the effect of what they have said. They may think its harmless, and may be deemed as a joke, but it has an impact on women in the workplace.

So we talked about some of the typical bias. And now were going to talk about the steps to counter it. I think there are numerous strategies that we can talk through. Some of these principles that we want to share today are...If you see something like that, try to speak up for someone. So, if you have seen discrimination or bias, speak up against it. For example, management is choosing someone for a project and dismisses a female employee who has just given birth, and perhaps she is more junior and not confident to speak up. Speak up for her or nominate someone to speak up and correct the discrimination or bias against her. Let them know she would love the opportunity and you’re sure she would be able to manage her time and responsibilities. Or if you see an unconscious remark that is basically deemed microaggression pointed it out so that it is easier for the person who is on the receiving end to have an outlet and to help that person to respond. If there are gender biases and unconscious where management thinks maybe she's not up to deliver that task, ask probing questions, such as what makes you think that and really questioned the assumption of what the other person has commented on. And in a lot of situations, I'm sure you guys have this common story, we normally get the most youngest Junior female to take notes during meeting because they are deemed to be more conscientious, more discipline and more detailed. These are some of the unconscious bias that we got to fight so I actually think that management needs to try to get men to do some of the menial tasks and the housekeeping stuff because they are equally detailed, and conscientious.

Some of the other strategies that would be helpful is, you know, stick to the facts, right? When people make judgmental quick judgment about capability of a certain person, ask for facts to back it up. I think this happens a lot during performance evaluation, we might actually see that some of the more confident male would actually say they have done very, very well. Whereas even though females who have done very well in most of the evaluation, they would dilute their accomplishment and say I've done this but I think I could have done more. In my experience, where I do performance evaluation with some of my team, the male will come by and say that, okay, I've done 10 things right and there are two things that I think I can improve on, whereas female would have the reverse. So in this case, ask for facts to backup, the assumptions and the assertion. Use rationale use examples so that we can actually eliminate bias. Continuous training in terms of bias, you know, awareness of that ago would have been helpful as well. These days I think unconscious bias is more talked about, we have a term that could frame what has happened in situations like a couple years ago, I did not know that was unconscious bias in play. Point out and use the correct phrase to educate your colleagues or even educate yourself that, hey, why do I think that? Ask yourself that question if this happens to yourself, or ask your colleagues that question when it happens to someone else that might have missed the blind spot.

And I think one of the more important strategies is to advocate for policy change and education in the workplace. HR plays a role in this. A lot of companies have actually started to provide unconscious bias training for their staff. And I would actually like to mention that Lean in Malaysia also organises a workshop for this. And we find that it's very helpful because the takeaway was, I really didn't know that. That comment was based on this deep rooted assumption, that might not be very correct.

We know that equality in the workplace and family and gender equality is getting more and more important. And if you look at the statistics, we've seen positive progress in terms of female participation in the workforce. And based on statistics in Malaysia, we've actually seen that female engineers actually comprise 50% of the total engineers in the country. And this is according to UNESCO science report towards 2030, which is way ahead of a lot of developed countries, such as Japan and Korea, which only have about 5 to 10% female representation in the engineering field. Canada has 19%, Germany 22%, and New Zealand 27%. So hey, actually, Malaysia and even Singapore is not bad, because Singapore representation has about 30% of female researchers and engineers. But access doesn't mean inclusion, because even though the participation rate in this particular field, and engineering field is high for women compared to some of the rest of the fields, if you look at the senior management composition, it is only about 23%. And like I mentioned earlier, there is only 17% of women CEO in the country. And globally, women only make up about 29% of senior management. Ask yourself, if you look at the top engineering companies in Malaysia, right, our construction companies, how many female leaders can you actually associated with? So the point is this: Female participation has increased, but female leadership participation in the field is still pretty narrow and we have room for improvements. So how do we advance that? How does this translate to workplace policies and government policies? I think one of the things that we've increasingly seen is that for companies establishing KPIs on gender and ESG quotas has been increasing. There is focus on workplace family policies, childcare policies that will help enable women to come back to the workforce and to participate fully and commit fully. We can encourage skills training, conduct unconscious bias training and advocacy programs to promote female leadership and I think in the government, there is a lot of policies that have actually driven female directorship in companies. And obviously, this is not just about policies that advanced and enable women but it's also important to have government policies that would assist men to participate more equally in the workplace so that there will be equal sharing of responsibility at work, or at home. I think that's pretty crucial.

I think everybody, or a lot of you might have read the book ‘Lean In’ or heard of it? I like the concepts of Lean In and I personally try to practice a lot of the lessons. But leaning in is not enough. It urges women to be more assertive and with that comes potential backlash, like likability bias, right, because women who are more aggressive or assertive may not be well liked because generally, we are expected to be friendly, and more passive and so this may actually disadvantage women who are trying to be more assertive, according to the Lean In principals.

So how do we get our male colleagues to come in and be a stronger ally, to promote a more equal workplace? To be more outspoken, to champion women, and to support women? Because we want equal voices and we want that perspective and we want their help to propel the cause. And that will be more effective rather than putting the sole burden on women. And I think, very importantly, sponsor women, right, not just mentor. Sponsoring means that you advocate for the person, if you think the person is capable, provide her with job opportunities to showcase her capability and strength. There’s one concept that we like called amplification, where it is used to address unconscious bias. This strategy is to help give credit where its due and interject on behalf of their colleagues by pulling them into conversations and giving them opportunities to weigh in their thoughts. And that will be very helpful in terms of promoting and supporting women who might not be so open in terms of sharing accomplishments.

I think Lastly, we must admit that bias exists everywhere and we need to challenge our bias everywhere and every day. It is a journey. It is something that is pretty new, like I mentioned. So people are still grappling with and what can we do about it? And even, you know, a lot of us finally have that phrase to coin it and frame our situation. It is not easy, because this is a decade long of unconscious preconception that is imprinted within us. And media amplifies it by showing us ads that stereotype certain women as well as men. So, what we can try to do is to change our mental model, learn to unlearn so that we can learn new things. Try to co-create an equal workplace where you could be proud to have your sons and daughters to report.

Before I end, I would like to ask all of you to really just use the time to think about what are your own unconscious biases that you have? What do you commit to fight? How do you commit to fight the unconscious bias that you may have just realised that you have? And how will you, as a male or a female, support your colleagues in the workplace?

Gender equality is not about a battle of the sexes. It is not a matter of who's smarter, who's stronger, but it is about working together, male and female, to realise each other's full potential. Building a more equal society for everyone, thank you.

Q&A

Q: As a CEO in your daily work, how do you advocate these issues in your organisation?

A: Very good question. So I try to make a very conscious decision in terms of how I credit my team, when I hire, when I do performance evaluation, when I assign tasks. So it starts right from the beginning when I hire people, I will make sure that just because a person says or looks a certain way or come off as more confident during an interview, doesn't mean that an introvert is not equally capable. And I try to use that time to dig into capabilities and the experience of the person rather than judging so quickly. And this follows on through to promotion decisions towards assignment decisions, and how I give feedback.

Q: After bringing the unconscious bias to the conscious, what can we do to overcome them?

A: Well, having brought the unconscious to the conscious, I think that's a wonderful first step, because now you are aware of the unconscious that you have. So then the question is how do you, if it's your own unconscious bias that you have uncovered, how do you remind yourself and check yourself whenever similar situations happen? And this could be very unique to your situation, it depends on what the unconscious bias is. And if you realise that unconscious bias lies with somebody else, right, your colleagues and so on, find the right time to pull them aside and ask the person, What makes you say that? And if the person gives you an answer, ask more probing question. For example, have you considered this other facts? Are you sure this is the right assumption? So that a person can internalise and question and come to a realisation him or herself. And I find that’s always a better strategy compared to being very upfront.

Q: Is there any research about the improvement of overall productivity by including more female or having a more even distribution of both gender in the team in Malaysia?

A: Oh definitely. If you look at a lot of industries, actually, Malaysia is pretty advanced compared to neighbouring countries in terms of female participation. What we see is that it's a more diverse and balanced view, in terms of perspective, because we have to realise that there is a biological difference in the way males and females think. Men can come up with certain ideas that the females might not and females can come up with ideas that perhaps men are not aware of.


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