Do you really need to de-bias your advancement process? There is a very strong belief that people get promoted on merit. But is that true? Is that what happens in your organisation? Just have a bit of a closer look and ask yourself; ‘How do you get ahead in this organisation?’

In the focus groups that I run on advancement I often find that there is a wide range of formal and informal factors that determine how you get ahead. It can be about years of experience, or getting the right qualifications, but it can also be about knowing the right people, doing the right projects or being at the right time in the right place.

Iris Bohnet shows in her book ‘What works’ that informal ways of progressing typically work well for men, or anyone with a similar background to the dominant group. This is also what I have seen with my clients. As a result it’s always the same kind of people that advance, which hampers diversity in more senior roles.

So how can you change this and make sure everyone has a fair chance? The answer is simple, but it isn’t always simple to implement. To show what I mean I would like to take a closer look at work allocation, one of the key factors in advancement and look at how you can de-bias it.

How to de-bias your advancement process – work allocation?

The type of work experience you have and the jobs you do play a key factor in which role you get promoted to next. Yet, in practice work allocation is typically quite random, and left to the discretion of the team manager.

Recently I was running a workshop in a law firm about gender difference, and one of the female partners came up to me. She explained that she could see those gender differences in her team. Some people would be very visible and let her know regularly they were keen to move ahead and have more challenging projects. Others would be more accommodating, and team focussed and would let her know they were happy to take on any tasks or projects. And guess which ones were the men, and which ones the women?

She explained that she was keen to give women an equal chance and encourage them to aim higher. But in reality it was more important to her to keep harmony in the team. So she had found that she would more easily give the high profile projects to those that asked; men. Just to avoid trouble.

The solution may seem easy, just teach women to speak more confidently about their capabilities, and learn to put themselves forward for high profile projects. However, that has proven to be difficult. It requires you re-train every woman that enters your organisation. In addition some women feel quite uncomfortable putting themselves forward and it makes them feel less authentic.

Of course it also doesn’t solve the problem of the manager. If everyone in her team is as keen to move ahead, there’s trouble on the horizon.

It’s much easier to turn it around and find an organisational solution. Why not make the work allocation process more fair and transparent?

How to make your work allocation process more fair and transparent and de-bias it?

Find out how work is typically allocated in your organisation, and find out what jobs, roles, projects and experience is typically required to get ahead. Then find out who is allocating these opportunities.

Then brainstorm on the following questions:

  • Is there a way opportunities could be ranked by desirability? This could include criteria such as strategic importance to the organisations, access to more senior managers and client facing.
  • Is there a way opportunities could be made visible to all? It doesn’t have to be a massive exercise. Just a list in a weekly or monthly meeting with upcoming projects and their ranking could be enough.
  • Is there a way everyone could see what kind of opportunities others have had? Most people – also men – are quite happy to take on a less desirable project if it’s clear everyone has an equal chance of getting the good projects.

How to de-bias your advancement process – Making it work

In reality changing work allocation can be a touchy subject, and may require buy-in from a range of stakeholders. So you may wish to start with gathering some data on work allocation, ask a range of employees for their experiences and/or run focus group. Then get a team together that fairly represents HR and hiring managers and potentially employees and jointly find answers to the questions above.

Please do share your thoughts on fair work allocation. I would love to hear the ideas it has sparked, or what you have tried.

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Author: Inge Woudstra

Would you like to know more or have a question? I am always happy to have a chat to discuss your needs. Why not drop me a line or pick up the phone? Call me at 01372 457 907 or Just contact me to discuss your requirements by e-mail.

I can help you recruit, retain and advance women, and typically work with organisations in tech and engineering.

Or just check out my book 'Be Gender Smart - The Key to Career Success for Women'

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