Tackling unconscious bias in the Boardroom

Remarks on how to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace

Madelyn Flores: Fabrice, only 0.6% of board seats are occupied by LGBTQ+ people. When we think about pipeline as well for these positions, only 25% 2 of S&P500 companies even disclose if they have directors who identify as LGBTQ+. I’d love for you to briefly share some of the structural bottlenecks for these results and then spend the rest of the time talking about the cultural barriers and implications of unconscious bias.

Fabrice: The structural bottlenecks are well-known and acknowledged. They are similar to those experienced by other underrepresented groups in the Boardroom. The traditional way board searches are handled leaves very little room to include LGBTQ+ candidates: i) they are handled behind closed doors; ii) open seats are rare because of low turnover; and as you mention most companies do not keep track of LGBTQ+ board representation. I would add the fact that LGBTQ+ people are overlooked for jobs and promotions and lack mentorship, this was particularly true for the generation that is currently in the boardroom.

The social bottlenecks to LGBTQ+ Board representation are more pernicious because they are often not openly expressed. In fact most companies I speak with, tell me “we do not discriminate, nobody cares about your sexual orientation in the Boardroom”. I tell them to look at the numbers. To put it bluntly gay people are perceived as more frivolous, less qualified, less trustworthy, potentially disruptive, and as bringing an agenda into the Boardroom. This taps into old stereotypes linked to the fact that LGBTQ+ people violate social norms. Concretely it translates into existing Board members perceiving LGBTQ+ candidates are underqualified. From the 2021 PwC survey, 60% of directors surveyed think board diversity is “driven by political correctness” and about a third think it is resulting in “unqualified” and “unneeded” candidates.

It’s just inaccurate. I feel like Mitt Romney: I have binders of LGBTQ+ candidates and they are all exceptional. In that generation if you are gay and made it to the top of business, you had to be exceptional.

Madelyn Flores: Can you share a time when you almost fell into a bias trap? What made you aware of the bias action you almost took and how did you act in the moment to self-correct?

Fabrice: Gay people are unfortunately far from immune to bias. I remember once, when I worked at the World Bank, seating next to Caroline Anstey, then Managing Director at the World Bank, and telling her about my experience at the Bank blushing and sweating when my turn to speak would come to speak because I had integrated I was an inferior specie. She paused and told me “you have described what it feels to be a woman at the Bank”. It struck me because I had never thought about the women experience at the Bank. Until someone tells you about their experience, it is hard to understand the mechanisms of exclusion that exist. That’s why storytelling and role models are important.

Madelyn Flores: Thank you everyone for sharing the specific instances in which bias arises in the workplace. I’d love to end this session with action at a structural level. What is one thing companies can do to help create more inclusive workplaces through de-bias efforts.

Fabrice: Showcase LGBTQ+ role models in order to dispel myths about LGBTQ+ professionals. It’s not difficult to find them. And you will be surprised, rather than disruptive figures, our candidates are great addition to the boardroom, and, contrary to many existing directors, they read the board package. I would also say make a pledge to add diverse candidates to your slate when considering new board members, you might be surprised.

To learn more:

- Cultural versus structural barriers to LGBTQ+ Board representation, Tackling unconscious bias at the Board level: link

- Association of LGBTQ+ Corporate Directors: http://lgbtqdirectors.org

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Fabrice Houdart

Fabrice is on the Board of Outright Action International. Previously he was an officer at the UN Human Rights Office and World Bank