Having worked all around the world doesn’t come without its challenges, and even though I believe I am open-minded, inclusive, and bias-free, I am human. Thus, when I began delivering the diversity and inclusion workshops, I felt it was only suitable to examine my unconscious bias and dig deeper to discover how it affected my own behaviour.

Blind spots and biases impact our awareness of ourselves. Anytime a trait is complex for us to see, it is one we need to explore. For example, when I was growing up, men and women had different roles. Men in my family had power and thus authority. In my childhood home, men’s voices were more significant than women’s, and this stayed with me unconsciously until it showed up in my IAT results. One thing for sure is that these experiences act as collective filters when we make assessments and judgements of people around us. Besides this, research shows that human beings naturally tend to place individuals into social classifications. These groupings are often based on visual cues such as gender, cultural background, age, height, and body size. We also catalogue people based on their social background, professional roles, religious distinctiveness, and political affiliation. In my experience, the entire unconscious bias debate drives connection, whereas I have seen in the past that racist discussions generate disconnection.

In the collective unconscious, women have spontaneously assumed fewer sound negotiators than their male counterparts. Why is that?

Gender

Studies reveal that women spend more money buying a car or other costly items. This is because men often negotiate more aggressively, valued and expected in business. In addition, the language used is competitive, “win-lose” A woman, on the other hand, who exhibits these traits will frequently be stigmatised or devalued. Nevertheless, structural and integrated inequalities are persistent. Hence, we must avoid blaming women, as this is a joint problem. I have seen this in myself, my female clients, and my female friends.

Indeed, I have a significant example of negotiating as a woman in my practice. In my book How To Get Out Of Your Own Way, I worked with a wonderful young lady called Sangeeta (name has been changed) who had been working part-time since her children were born and felt stuck in her role at work and wanted more. However, Sangeeta, through her own admission, was not clear as to what that looked like. She spoke at length about her frustration with her current position, and simultaneously she spoke about the fact she had freedom and time with her two children. I noticed an incoherence and shared my observation with Sangeeta. Indeed, she told me she had spoken to her line manager the previous week to negotiate a pay rise.

“It went wrong. I wanted a salary increase and walked out with another project and less pay. I was so set on asking for what I needed and walked in intending to resolve the salary issue, and I walked out with two problems. More work, same pay!” My question was, “What happens when you ask for something for yourself?” How do we explain this hesitation of women to negotiate? It’s a widespread condition with known symptoms, but it’s treatable!

We are still developing from a mainly male-controlled world. In my coaching practice and life, I have seen that female leaders’ opinions have created a series of biases that start at birth, continue at school, and so on. When I coach women, we examine how and why they have taken on specific behaviours. These behaviours could have been adopted by accident or inherited from primary caretakers or authority figures. Why we continue to play them out and how is always worth exploring. Subsequently, in my sessions, we play out those worst-case scenarios and challenge the truth of fear-based thoughts.

Gravitas

Gravitas denotes seriousness. People with gravitas portray grace and stature. They are honourable, responsible and committed to action. Gravitas was valued among leaders during the Roman empire, and I would argue it is even respected today. 

“We are not born good negotiators. We become one.”

Gratitude 

Gratitude is a practice of looking at your life positively based on what you have achieved and what you have. The mantra is everything makes us “complete” people when we think we lack everything. Becoming aware of who you are, grateful for where you have got to and owning your power will change your state before, during and after negotiation.

I lived in a context where men had power. They had authority, right, and might. I was reminded that women did not have the same place as men and that our role was to serve our fathers, brothers, and husbands.

Regarding gender bias, one thing is sure: it’s hardwired into us. And sometimes, as women, we are biased against ourselves, believing the stereotypes we hear. But, agreed, it is not intentional. Thus, the unconscious people preferences we make that are formed in childhood, through our education, are often a mishmash of all our experiences that come together to form our predispositions and preferences. People do not consciously want to be biased but may not be aware that they are. But if we keep seeing males in positions of authority or power, something gets triggered in the unconscious brain. Thus we will continue to be biased unless we start seeing females in positions of authority and power.

Suppose all your life you’ve been exposed to messages, consciously and unconsciously, that white skin is beautiful. In that case, you will unconsciously make these associations, which will impact your decision-making and choices, but if you become aware of it, you can slow down the process. When people do not believe they have a scrap of preference, uprooting the bias becomes very difficult to tackle. We do, we all do, and we are all too quick to categorise people instead of identifying what skills people bring to the table. Unconscious bias often surfaces when we’re multitasking or when we’re stressed, as research shows. It comes up in tense situations when we don’t have time to think and try to make snap decisions. It’s part of our evolutionary fight-or-flight response. It’s automatic. We all have stereotypes that we are not aware of. That doesn’t make us bad people. However, becoming aware of unconscious bias and ignoring how it shows up in our daily life is a terrible practice. The challenge is to be realistic and not pretend to eliminate biases but to try to interrupt them so we can behave in ways aligned with our values.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s number two, details an excellent example of her negotiating her salary with Mark Zuckerberg in her book Lean In. So the businesswoman told Zuckerberg she couldn’t accept; Mark called back the next day: he had a better proposal for her.

Micro-behaviours have a significant influence on others. So my biggest takeaway is to be prepared before any negotiation, which will give you the conviction and authority to go forward. 

We must become more aware of imbalances and more secure in our skills. Because of a lack of self-confidence, girls are taught to be excellent and small. And because of the anxiety of being socially punished and stereotyped from birth, we satisfy the narrative.

They find a way to rise from the ashes.

Irrespective of our differences, we all have central human needs and emotions. Therefore, it is vital and valuable to acknowledge our differences. In my work, I help my clients accept differences. As a female coach from a minority background, I believe the conversation about difference needs to be opened and developed to create deeper authentic relationships. The uncertainty around handling diversity stems from the lack of knowledge, exposure, and training.

We must be realistic because we now live in a culture with tremendously high expectations. We strive for perfectionism, and the simple truth is that life isn’t a smooth ride. However, having a support network of people you can trust is fundamental. You don’t have to share everything. Hold your boundaries; listen and learn; and share and care.

Author(s)

  • Sunita Sehmi

    Organisational Dev I Exec Leadership Coach I Author I Mentor I

    Walk The Talk

    Org Dev Consultant I Exec Leadership Performance Coach I DEI Warrior I Author I Mentor I Work smarter I Live better I Think deeper.