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Unconscious bias in the workplace can impede women's progress: Panel


NEW YORK — Unconscious bias in the workplace can be an impediment to the professional development and advancement of women, according to a panel discussion at the Business Insurance Women to Watch Leadership Workshop in New York on Tuesday.

Assumptions made about women in the workplace often preclude them from being included in consideration for posts or advancement, the speakers said.

“The assumption is made before we get to ask the question,” said Elizabeth Demaret, executive vice president and chief customer relationship officer for Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. in Chicago. “If a job involves going overseas, (it's assumed) a woman can't go because she has children.

The assumption about women, said Ms. Demaret, is that they manage the family. “A woman's readiness is not even discussed,” she said.

Unconscious bias can take different forms, such as age bias or social economic bias, according to Bonnie Boone, senior vice president at Marsh USA in New York. “Some senior managers don't even know many African-Americans; they don't have a familiarity with other cultures and ethnicities,” she said.

Ms. Boone added, however, that she is hopeful about the progress she has seen. “The progression I've seen at Marsh, the multicultural impact at Marsh, is very impressive to me.”

Mildred Claire, director-insurance and risk management for Los Angeles-based Tishman Construction Group, encouraged women to be “firm but not aggressive” in the workplace. She said she worked hard in backroom operations and gradually, over time, began to be invited to meetings.


Ms. Demaret said she wanted to dispel the notion that assertiveness in women is undesirable. “I am interested in breaking the assumption that these traits — powerful and assertive — are negatives in women.”

Ms. Claire also stressed the importance of forming support groups allowing professional women to advise others on how to avoid stumbling into bias, even something as simple as a women's group having a Dress for Success event.

“It teaches [women] how to dress for success, to keep makeup minimal,” said Ms. Claire.

Social situations, especially those after working hours, can present a minefield of stereotypical biases toward women, said Lynn Crickette, account handler for U.S property at Lloyd & Partners Ltd. in London.

Her solution: “Don't go! The stereotypes are there — you can't avoid them.”

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