Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

We all suffer from unconscious biases. But we can overcome it

Due to prevalent unconscious biases women struggle to rise through the ranks to executive and leadership positions in companies across Latin America.

Due to prevalent unconscious biases women struggle to rise through the ranks to executive and leadership positions in companies across Latin America. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Claudia Politanski
Executive Vice-President, Itaú Unibanco
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Latin America

When I am asked for the solution for companies to guarantee gender equality in the corporate environment, I usually reply that there is no magic formula. However, there is a starting point that involves individuals first, leading to policies and tools implemented by the human resources department. This starting point is an awareness that all of us have, to a lesser or greater degree, sublimated prejudices or unconscious biases.

Organizations should be able to create and implement policies and efficient tools that effectively facilitate the development of women’s careers. However, it is fundamental that corporate leaders – and by this, I mean people in management positions – should understand these unconscious biases and act so that their decisions are not contaminated by them.

We Latin Americans have grown up in a macho culture. For this reason, the unconscious biases linked to gender issues are deeply rooted in most of us, even those that believe themselves to be free of any type of prejudice.

Identifying unconscious biases

There are serious studies and sophisticated tools to identify these unconscious biases individually. For all practical purposes, as a starting point, we should consider that they exist and that we are influenced by them in our daily routines. This may range from anything between making decisions on the bringing up of children, to when we choose to promote one professional to the detriment of another in the working environment.

I began my career very young, as an intern in the legal department of a bank, at the time a predominantly male environment. Although never personally feeling the target of discrimination or experiencing difficulty in developing and growing professionally, over time I began to see the need to understand the barriers to women rising through the ranks to executive and leadership positions.

Unconscious biases are prevalent in many Latin American cultures. The subsequent gender gaps are also high
Unconscious biases are prevalent in many Latin American cultures. The subsequent gender gaps are also high

It was then that I decided to dedicate time to participate in discussion forums on diversity, together with other executives from both domestic and international companies. This has given me the opportunity to obtain an in-depth knowledge of the issues, allowing me to do something about improving the reality for women in the corporate environment.

In these discussions, I learnt that it is commonplace for people to have a false impression that, by working in a large company with values aligned to the cause of diversity, the issue of gender resolves itself naturally. After all, if we managers have no prejudices and we believe in meritocracy, naturally we will give the same opportunities to equally talented and dedicated men and women.

Such an apparently reasonable assumption is denied by the facts when we look at the numbers of men and women in senior positions in companies. At the more junior management level, we can see that gender equality has already arrived. However, when we move up the pyramid, the size of the challenge we have on our hands becomes clear.

Just to cite the example of Itaú Unibanco, which today employs approximately 95,000 people: women represent about 51% of our coordinators, making up the first managerial layer of the bank. When we move up to the managers, there are a little more than 35%; and at senior manager level, the figure is around 24%; descending further to 14% at management level. When we look at the bank as a whole, women make up 60% of our payroll. It is evident that we still have much to do.

Unconscious biases against equality and gender

The good news is that we are not alone. Companies the world over have been poring over the question of equality and gender. Many important forums have been sitting down to serious debate as to the role of corporations in this context. One example is the commitments agreement sponsored by UN Women where the focus is on the empowerment of women through the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs).

Last year, Itaú Unibanco signed up to the document which represents a formal commitment on the part of the bank to work for the promotion of gender equality, a basic principle of the UN’s Global Compact. Initiatives such as this are very important for giving visibility to the cause and for engaging companies in the discussion, but clearly, they are not enough to resolve the whole question. As I said from the outset of this article, there is no “silver bullet”.

While the responsibility of companies is clear as agents for change, disseminating and promoting an inclusive environment and one favourable to the retention and ascendency of women; we cannot restrict ourselves to the unconscious biases prevalent in the corporate world. What goes on outside is extremely important, because behaviour in the workplace is a reflection of behaviour outside.

We must accelerate the social change already taking place and strive for a more balanced division of roles between men and women. The identification of unconscious biases might be a first step towards increasing the speed of change of this movement, fortunately, a movement for which there is no return.

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