Affinity bias 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. Affinity bias occurs when we gravitate to people like us because it creates a sense of familiarity and comfortableness. Just like me. Affinity bias is most often at play in the hiring process- when hiring managers implicitly hire in the image of themselves. It is pops up throughout the promotion and succession planning process creating a barrier to gender balanced leadership teams.
In the Inclusive Leaders coaching sessions Mitchell Services facilitates, I regularly 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. Or that in 5 years time we’ll have great female candidates- just none right now. 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”. 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 research shows merit is subjective and prone to bias. Yet the majority of men- 43%- believe that the biggest barrier to women in leadership is due to a pipeline issue, according to EY’s research.
The assumption that we ‘lower the bar’ for female candidates must be challenged. Blaming a shortage of unqualified women for leadership roles must be challenged.
There’s no shortage of women in organisations. Australian industries generally reflect a pyramid structure with reasonable gender equity at the bottom of the pyramid, with women representation decreasing at entry manager roles, leadership & board roles across industry. This is particularly acute in male-dominated industries.
Fitzsimmons & Callan’s Filling the Pool research (2015) commissioned by the Committee for Perth, found that male dominated cultures perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes. This in turn leads to heightened levels of direct and indirect discrimination as well as bias in recruitment, selection, performance and progression decisions.
Is the pipeline perception due to affinity bias? That there are limited women ‘just like me’?
The Filling the Pool research further found where men dominate senior levels of management as well as boards of directors, there is a tendency for these men to select males similar to themselves (Reskin & McBrier, 2000; Tharenou, 1999).
Affinity bias also has the potential to impact who gets assigned the ‘hot’ jobs or high profile assignments. In a recent study with Melbourne University’s Centre for Ethical Leadership and PricewaterhouseCoopers focused on increasing female participation in global mobility programs, statistics showed just 1 in 4 Australian outbound expatriates were female. In many global organisations, the spotlight that international experience brings is viewed as a pre-requisite to executive and leadership roles. Affinity bias in the candidate selection process is seen as a key blockage to women being identified and selected for high profile overseas assignments. The study highlights that assumptions by managers and HR on unavailability or lack of willingness of females to travel overseas were in contrast with the actual data; seven out of ten women wanted to work outside of their home country. Over half of overseas roles are filled through using networks and informal communication, however when there is an urgent request to fill an overseas role, management typically select someone similar to them thus perpetuating affinity bias.
This data correlates with Catalysts’ 2012 research that found that women are not being assigned on high-profile stretch assignments such as key international roles or in critical profit-and-loss management positions which impacts their ability to climb to leadership ranks. Catalyst found that international assignments predict advancement. Statistics showed that women get fewer global mobility assignments than men—but not because they’re unwilling to relocate. Catalyst’s study showed two thirds of women were never offered the opportunity. Affinity bias in action.
Yet the problem of a lack of women at the top traditionally sits with HR and Diversity, traditionally ‘solved’ by women’s mentoring programs. When companies recruit up to 50 per cent of women at the bottom of the organisation, the time acceptability of not having any women in the senior team reduces every year; not counting the waste of money, development and time. Accountability must sit with the leadership team as a strategic business issue; not a diversity issue. Strategic business issues require a strategy.
Only 20 per cent of Australian organisations have a gender equity strategy with action plans operationalised (WGEA, 2014).
Applying bias interrupters– strategies to intentionally disrupt the subtle and not so subtle business processes propagating gender inequity- are required. A focused Diversity & Inclusion strategy dives deep into gender bias in processes such as hiring, promotion, remuneration and mobility; identifies measures to define the effect; identifies bias interrupters to move the metrics; and ongoing measurement.
Is your organisation limiting the progression of high potential female employees?