How to combat unconscious bias in the workplace

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Kiran Scarr is dual-qualified as a practicing lawyer and executive coach. Her career has seen Kiran transform from an international public-private-partnership lawyer at magic circle law firms in the UK, Australia, South East Asia and the Middle East to a multi-award-winning C-suite leader. 

We asked Kiran to share her career story, what she's learnt about mentoring and how to combat gender bias in the workplace.

How did you get to where you are today, and who helped you along the way?

To be honest, it’s been a long and winding path to where I am.  I have always had self-determination, a thirst for risk, a sense of adventure, bags of courage and a longing to lead through change.  However, most of my choices have been made unassisted.  I have never had a sponsor who actively supported or promoted me during my career as a private practice lawyer nor mentors or coaches to help me navigate the murky waters of career progression until very recent years. This has meant that I lacked positive role models when it mattered most in my career.  And I take responsibility for that because whilst nobody offered to take me under their wing, it never occurred to me, until I reached my 40s, to look up and ask for help and support.

Have you personally experienced implicit or explicit gender bias? If so, did you feel able to challenge it?

In hindsight yes, but I never questioned it at the time.  For example, when I qualified as a lawyer in 1998 at the same time as my husband, the salary he was offered as a NQ was 10% higher than my offer at the same firm. This trend continued throughout our private practice careers.  I never questioned it and simply accepted it based on the principle of deferred gratification i.e. it’s irrelevant now as I’ll make partner in the long term (which didn’t, in reality, happen). 

And during my General Counsel years, whilst I do not have evidence of gender pay disparity, I strongly suspect that I did not remain on par with my male senior executive peers mainly because I never asked for a pay rise, never negotiated an uplift and never spoke up when dissatisfied with my bonus. I have only in recent years acquired the knowledge of how to ask for what I want, self-promote in an authentic way, talk openly and honestly about my and my team’s achievements and accomplishments and feel truly accepted at the boardroom table.

In your experience, what are the key hindrances affecting women’s career progression?

In my view there are numerous contributing factors to why women are not fairly represented at board room level.  Aside from the well-documented systemic factors such as sub-conscious bias, a key contributing factor is the burning need for women to pro-actively build and promote their leadership brand.  Women lead as much as men.  However, what holds them back can be one or more of the following three elements – having the right mindset to succeed, articulating value to the organisation and committing to a systematic process that prioritises what you want and where you want to be.

What held you back in your career, and how did you overcome it?

Principally, the absence of a proper roadmap to navigate my way to meaningful career progression. There was never any issue with my competence, my confidence or my presence with people. But I never prioritised a systematic approach to getting what I wanted. I never invested fully in building a network of connections and collaborations.  I never self-promoted and truly believed that my leadership strengths would shine brightly enough to be recognised and promoted by senior management.  It took investment in executive coaching, leadership development and some serious self-reflection for me to learn that I had to shine the light on me for it to be seen from balcony height.  

What have you learnt about mentoring?

Mentorship is crucial.  During the early stages of your career, it is vitally important to seek input from those who are more experienced to provide advice and guidance on your choices and decisions. For those at the mid-point of your career, meaningful progress cannot be made without sponsors and mentors to support, promote and encourage and a coach to hold a mirror up for you to reflect, consider and course-correct. At senior level, it’s principally about reverse mentorship.  As senior leaders we are dealing with disruption and change at every step and seeking feedback and input from individuals of different skills-sets and seniority provide us with perspectives that encourage us to grow and improve as leaders.

What is your business doing to achieve gender parity in the workplace?

My business partners and I – 3 former executive leaders who have delivered highly profitable and award-winning transformation in the organisations in which we have worked – set up changeosity in 2019.  Our models, frameworks and programs transform corporate leadership, culture, strategy and decision-making by encouraging leadership behaviours that are better suited to leading transformational change in the 21st century.  Rather than adopt the traditional leadership traits of command and control and individualistic decision-making, we show leaders how to adopt growth leadership behaviours (demonstrated more commonly by women than men) such as inspiration, participative decision-making, people development and role modelling. Whilst our ultimate purpose is to make corporate life better for everyone, we see one core route to achieving this to be through supporting greater diversity of skills at board level.  An example is our Build Your Leadership Brand program which we have customised for c-level and aspiring c-level women to tackle the core issues that hold them back (adopting the right mindset, articulating and promoting value and adopting a systematic process).  The program is gaining considerable traction in the Middle East as we continue to work with a number of MNCs to deliver the program as part of their core leadership development strategies.

What do you do personally when recruiting to encourage gender diversity?

I have always concentrated on a candidate’s track-record of behaviour and attitude.  Whilst I will always test technical skill, I will also focus on emotional intelligence as a key indicator of an individual’s probability to achieve his or her potential.  I would say that women generally demonstrate emotional intelligence in action more readily than men.  For example, they appear to be able to exert greater awareness and management of people and behaviour in the workplace.  If I measure candidates in this way, I find that I have a higher chance of recruiting someone who will fit into the role, the team and the business and contribute meaningfully to a positive culture.  As I said above, diversity, in my view, is better addressed as a skills issue than a gender parity issue.

What are your three top pieces of advice for women wanting to succeed in their career?

Have the right mindset; one of self-belief, growth and presence in your own life. Know your value and articulate your brand to the world in what you say and how you behave. Don’t leave it to others to push you. Take responsibility for your own career trajectory and focus on the journey of sequential steps rather than the ultimate destination.

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