Affinity bias occurs when we gravitate to people like us because it creates a sense of familiarity and comfortableness. Affinity bias is most often at play in the hiring process- when hiring managers implicitly hire in the image of themselves. Affinity bias also has the potential to impact all people management processes including who gets promoted, who is in the leaders’ in-group, who is seen as the go-to person, and who gets high profile assignments.
In the inclusive leader coaching sessions I facilitate, I often hear statements from senior leaders that there just aren’t enough women available to promote into leadership roles; that promoting women too early will compromise merit.
Sir Michael Moritz chairman of Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital is a case in point of the apparent dearth of suitable women. “Oh, we look very hard. In fact we just hired a young woman from Stanford who’s every bit as good as her peers, and if there are more like her, we’ll hire them. What we’re not prepared to do is to lower our standards”.
There’s no shortage of women in organisations; all industries generally reflect a pyramid structure with reasonable gender equity at the bottom of the pyramid, and women falling away higher up management, leadership & board roles. Wittenberg-Cox, a UK gender equity strategist states that when companies recruit more than 50 per cent of women at the bottom, the time acceptability of not having any women in the senior team is reducing every year; not counting the waste of money, development and time.
Catalysts’ 2012 research showed a critical barrier in assigning women to leadership roles is an apparent lack of high-profile stretch assignments or critical profit-and-loss management positions. Catalyst found that two thirds of women were never offered the opportunity. Affinity bias in the candidate selection process is seen as a key blockage to women being identified and selected for high profile assignments.
In many organisations, the visibility international experience brings is viewed as a pre-requisite to executive and leadership roles. Melbourne University’s Centre for Ethical Leadership research highlights managers and HR assumptions that females are not willing to travel overseas; despite the data showing that seven out of ten women wanted to work outside of their home country.
Recently an executive team shared the challenge of affinity bias for hiring externally; internal hires are not seen as leadership material. Discussion uncovered the primary barrier of a lack of development opportunities for women in the leadership pipeline. National Australia Bank is innovatively approaching this issue with a female employee job swap program; addressing a lack of development opportunities by sharing resources across organisations thereby providing different experiences for women to expand their thinking and raise visibility.
Inclusive leader coaching sessions reveal the clanger statement- we can’t lower the bar for female leadership candidates. Affinity bias in action. ‘Think leader think male’ bias has been shown in many studies where the traits we typically associate with leaders – forceful, dominant, strong, competent or even heroic – are stereotypically associated with men. This bias overrules actual merit, as merit is subjective and prone to bias.
Blaming a shortage of unqualified women for leadership roles must be challenged. The lack of women at the top traditionally sits with HR, Diversity or women’s mentoring programs; accountability must sit with the leadership team. This is a strategic business issue; not a diversity issue. Strategic business issues require a strategy. A focused Diversity & Inclusion strategy includes a review of affinity bias in processes such as hiring, development opportunities, promotion, remuneration and mobility; an action plan to address; and measures to define the effect.
I recently interviewed Mike Stapleton, Deputy Director-General Customer Service, Safety and Regulation from Department Transport Main Roads. Many organisations & leaders talk about how hard it is to find women to promote to leadership roles. Mike busts this myth by drawing directly on the strong pipeline of women throughout the organisation to fill the leadership pool. https://lnkd.in/bFrQTsh