bias thwarts innovation

My recent blog post on our future is networked and feminine has had more online attention than any other post I have written in the past two years. I was even asked to change the title, something that has never happened before. For me, the topic is not new, and I have presented these ideas to live audiences many times. I just wanted to get the ideas written out and the references linked. It is a fact that many of our current institutions and workplaces are not favourable to women.
One example is a pharmaceutical journal interview with Céline Schillinger, whom I know through social media and the Change Agents Worldwide community of practice. A stereotypical ‘male’ model of leadership dominates in this industry, and I am sure many others.

“Because of conservatism, fear of change, unconscious bias or ‘biased processes’, a narrow archetype of male leader gets favoured over every other talent. Women, but also men who do not fit with this archetype, have a much harder time progressing through the ranks. They are not evaluated according to the same standards. It is not intentional but it is very unfortunate and progress is very slow.” —Céline Schillinger

This is reinforced by a study reported in the Harvard Business Review that showed how gender bias works against women, no matter what their behavior.

“Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to “lean-in,” for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.

Bias, as we define it, occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently. Our data implies that gender differences may lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions. For example, consider female mentorship programs that try to connect high-potential women with management. If women talk to leadership at similar rates as men, then the problem isn’t lack of access but how those conversations are viewed.” —HBR 2017-10-22

Human systems thrive on variety and diversity. Gender bias thwarts diversity. The network era workplace requires collaboration and cooperation because complex problems cannot be solved alone. Tacit knowledge flows in networks through social learning. In order to develop the necessary emergent practices to deal with complexity we therefore need to cultivate the diversity and autonomy of each worker. We also must foster richer and deeper connections which can be built through meaningful conversations. Gender bias, as well as other biases, blocks these connections and the resulting knowledge flows.

Innovation requires diversity. Innovation is not so much about having ideas as it is about making connections. You cannot connect the dots if you are only paying attention to half of them. Innovation is a network activity and creating structural holes through gender bias only weakens the network. Innovation is not brilliant flashes of individual insight but collective learning through social networks. Leadership is helping the network make better decisions, so managers should help to weave more diverse networks.

Innovation is in a state of perpetual beta. Individual creativity has to be connected to interactive creativity. Cutting off the knowledge flow through institutional bias makes no sense.

“What really matters is to mirror the diversity of the world we serve. We need more women… more humanities majors… more people of colour … more professionals coming from other jobs … in short, a much bigger diversity of viewpoints at all levels. We also need more network and co-construction across levels, as the old pyramidal system is no longer fit for purpose.” —Céline Schillinger

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