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Lara Zink is the chief executive officer of Women in Capital Markets, and Katie Squires-Thompson is the chief strategy officer. More information about the organization is available at

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Break the Bias. We’re called to imagine a gender-equal world – free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination – that is diverse, equitable and inclusive.

This world is still in our imaginations. Women remain severely underrepresented in leadership roles and bias continues to hold women back in massive ways – an effect that is compounded for women holding multiple intersecting identities.

Of Canada’s 223 TSX-listed companies, only nine have women chief executive offers, and just 13 per cent of the 1,000 executive officer positions are women. Of Fortune 500 companies, women hold only 8 per cent of CEO positions. Last year did set a new record – with two Black women holding CEO roles for the first time in history.

Bias persists in overt and subtle ways throughout workplaces. Even as overt bias has decreased, assumptions and stereotypes around competence, leadership and likeability (often called unconscious bias) combine to disadvantage women and create significant negative effects on career progression.

Here’s how leaders and employees can interrupt bias in their organizations.

Acknowledge bias and get curious about where it shows up

The more we tell ourselves our processes are meritocratic, the more likely we are to have bias throughout and the less likely we are to notice it. Everyone is inherently biased and denying it is counterproductive. The question becomes, how can we effectively interrupt it?

De-bias your systems and processes, rather than your people

Studies show anti-bias training is not always effective and may not result in changing behaviour. It can even cause a backlash or further entrenchment of bias. It’s more effective to de-bias systems and processes rather than individuals. Anti-bias training should be part of a multifaceted approach that combines structural change and evolving traditional work practices to meet the needs of our diverse work force.

Interrupt bias in recruitment

Everything from the language in your job posting to the criteria you require for the role can influence what candidate you attract. Use gender-neutral language and describe the duties of the role, rather than personality traits. Technology can interrupt bias in résumé screening and short-listing by removing indicators of a candidate’s personal identity or background. For example, stereotypes about mothers suggest they are less committed to their work than non-mothers, which can result in pay penalties and a decreased likelihood that they will be hired.

Standardize evaluation systems for all hiring and advancement decisions

Creating a clear and consistently applied evaluation system is key. When individuals don’t have clear criteria for how to rank, compare or evaluate people, they have a greater tendency to rely on stereotypes and assumptions – putting women at a disadvantage. A University of British Columbia study shows Black women especially remain more likely to be evaluated negatively because of persistent stereotypes. All of this can affect promotions, advancement and pay. Ensuring managers have the tools to fairly evaluate employees can minimize unconscious biases.

When people regularly use structured criteria to evaluate all candidates, their selection of diverse talent improves. For example, an insurance firm implemented a criteria-based hiring process and their selection of visible minority candidates increased by 46 per cent. Research shows when hiring managers are involved in establishing the criteria and evaluation systems, they are more likely to regularly use the tools (rather than when the criteria are externally imposed).

Reimagine Promotions

Many opportunities for advancement are never advertised, so it’s impossible to ensure a diverse pool of applicants because people access positions through who they know. Using an opt-out promotion approach can be an effective way to ensure more women are considered for advancement opportunities: All qualified personnel are automatically considered for new roles, with the option to opt out. Such an approach can fully eliminate gender differences in applications for promotions and increase women’s participation in these competitions by 25 per cent.

To achieve an equitable future, we must put in the work. We all have a responsibility to challenge bias and discrimination and ensure equitable access to opportunities and career advancement.

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