Julie Dormand, MD of MercerBell, discusses how recognising and accepting we all have Unconscious Biases, can be the start of improving diversity.


As a female Managing Director of a Customer Experience Agency, I’m in a gender minority. As a mother, probably more so. My conversations are often littered with questions – how did I overcome gender diversity in the workplace? What we can do to change? The trouble is, I find myself stumped. It’s complicated.

Sheryl Sandberg‘s wonderful insight rings true of many. As women we tend to ‘lean out’ at critical times in our careers. Stepping away from a promotion as we start planning to have children. Changing to a role that will be less demanding when the family comes. On the flip-side, at the same critical point, men seem to step on the gas.

She mulls over the fact that women only put themselves forward (nervously) for roles when they feel entirely able to do the job. But a male counterpart will confidently raise a hand when able to do just over half. And so the gap in gender diversity begins.

Are we unconsciously under-selling ourselves?

Recently our Data Strategist and I spoke about Customer Engagement at a CEO dinner. After a healthy debate regarding how they can build Customer Experience in their businesses, the conversation turned to gender diversity. Addressed by two females, each man in the room was outwardly embarrassed there was not one female CEO in the group.

As we spoke they shared their struggles. Few females applying for Board positions in the first place. The number always so much lower than males. Then, of those few applications, the quality and way that the females sold their story on paper was seen as inferior. This supports Sheryl’s observation that we unconsciously play down our skills and knowledge.

For me, it was clear. Sponsors and mentors can help a great deal in encouraging females to advance. We need to encourage women to consciously up-sell themselves.

When gender isn’t the only gap

Gender inequality isn’t the only diversity issue we face in our workplace. Minority groups also suffer in work success – whether it’s race, gender, or sexual orientation. In fact, the Industry Circle survey done at the end of 2016 shows our own industry to also have an Age Gap. Our ‘experienced wise council’ colleagues seem to disappear after they turn 40.

So how do we move forward on all these diversity issues?

Recently, I was delighted to be chosen to attend an Executive Develop Program in Mumbai. The diversity in the room was exceptional across many countries. I was especially delighted that three of the four leaders from Australian agencies, were female.

Interestingly, the first day saw the usual ‘storms’ around forming teams. Individuals finding their role in the group where they would add the most value. People automatically went to the role they felt comfortable in. Finance people picked the CFO role, strategists the CSO, and so on. Then, to add to the complexity, there was a blend of people from different cultures, verbal accents, gender, and functional roles. This made for some tensions to arise in the groups.

The outing of unconscious bias

To kick off the second day the trainers took us through an insightful, and timely, session about UNCONCIOUS BIAS. This was a real eye-opener. We were asked to spend time thinking about our biases and how they impact the decisions we make as leaders. Which plays directly into the issues around gender, and all other, diversity issues.

Often with diversity issues, we look for the ‘villain’, the person who did the wrong thing. But it’s much subtler than that, and much deeper ingrained in the way our mind works. In fact, unconscious bias is not wrong or bad. These biases have been formed since birth. Our brains use the data to build quick pathways to decision making. It’s primitive and allows us to build instincts that the human race has used for survival for many years.

For many years I’ve been proud of my quick judgement, my ability to assess a situation and make a decision. And yet, with a greater understanding of unconscious bias I realise that with a little more consideration, I might change my decision entirely. By considering what unconscious biases I might have, and use as part of this decision making, it might help me make take a more holistic point of view.

What does unconscious bias look like?

  • It’s the unconscious bias that leads us to think the woman at the lift at 5pm is leaving early because she has a child. When we might think the man at the same lift is off to the gym.
  • It’s our unconscious bias that decides a candidate is right within the first few seconds of an interview.
  • It is our unconscious bias that might think the 50 something person is less likely to make a great digital leader, as they’re not a digital native.

There are many different types of unconscious bias:

The love of the same

Humans are triggered to want to associate with people who are the same as us. We feel more comfortable around them and believe we understand them. So during the hiring process, we might choose someone from the same country, university, or gender spontaneously. As we work with people our biases can lead us to promote people who think like us, have the same sense of humour and even career path.

In-group vs out-group

As companies grow they get more ‘tribes’ within them. Groups are natural as people look for their ‘place’ and people who they gel with.As groups form, this can create cultural issues in a business. Studies show that those within a group are more likely to be treated favourably than those who are out of that group. So as one person from that group becomes promoted, the natural instinct is to choose people from your group to be on your ‘team’.


We know stereotypes exist from the data we collect. They’re the reason we roll with laughter at a comedy sketch. The stereotypes so insightful we relate to them instantly. However, these are biases that we have and can be detrimental to progression towards diversity. For example, a stereotype could suggest the female, rather than the male, will stay home once they have children. In fact, as I write this I’m working from ‘Flip Out Trampoline Park’ in the school holidays. There are 20 mums and one dad. I’m the only one working in the room. Our stereotypes are fulfilled with the data we take in every day in every setting.

Confirmation bias

Our brains work to search for information that confirms the decisions we make. We seek out the relevant information and often overlook information that suggests a different ‘truth’ might exist. For example, in a team where agreement is made to allow a team member to work three days a week, the people who make the decision will pick up on all information that shows this is working. Those who don’t believe in part-time working will seek out the alternative negative data points. If this person isn’t performing, it might be seen as the three-day week being the issue, rather than the actual performance.

So with so much ingrained in our automatic decision-making, what can we do to make better decisions that are less bias and allow more diversity?

How do we tackle workplace bias?

Our course taught us that the problem is complicated but there is a simple way to start. It involves two steps:

  • Consider acknowledging our unconscious biases. Write them down to remind ourselves.
  • When decision-making, consciously take time to trigger the deeper thinking part of your brain (system two). Consider different points of view before making decisions. You might draw upon people in your team who you know will see things through a different lens. Discuss the biases that might be at play and whether they are relevant.

    • This was the most valuable part of the Executive Development Program. It’s something I have taken away and strive to keep coming back to in order to improve my leadership.

      I probably have an unconscious bias to Account Service as I understand the role and struggles that this team have. I probably have biases towards the English sense of humour, working mums…the list can go on. If, as leaders, we are all able to think of the areas of diversity that we are trying to impact and just take more consideration of these biases when making decisions, we might take a step forward towards a more balanced and less prejudiced workplace.