Combatting Subconscious Biases

One day, in my early twenties two of my close friends were getting married and the last name discussion came up. The fiancée asked me: "Would YOU consider taking your future fiancée’s last name?" It was the first time I became aware of my preconceived notions, my subconscious biases that society has ingrained in our minds for generations. Why is it expected of women to give up a name that ties them to their history, their families, and not of the man?

After that, I became naturally interested in the topic and read thought-provoking articles and books, but I still have subconscious biases. Two weeks ago, for example, I was reading a book by an African female activist. As I was reading it, I admit feeling that she was kind of annoying. I remembered then an element of Breakthrough Leadership – Men as Allies (BLMaA): The research shows that when a man says something like, “That’s the way it must be,” he’s seen as assertive. When a woman says it, it’s seen as aggressive. So, I imagined the book had been written by a successful male and suddenly the book had become inspiring. I was upset with myself, because I’d hope that after facilitating BLMaA five times, I’d be more gender neutral. Subconscious biases can be sticky.

The stories from women that I hear during the afternoon sessions of BLMaA show me that not only many men, but also women have this kind of bias, and it’s pervasive. Gender biases cross genders, race, cultures and generations. The result is simple: Women are not treated the same way men are in our company or in society in general. It might be OK in some instances, but there is no reason why it would be acceptable when we talk about individual people’s careers. After talking to many women about this topic, I can’t believe it’s just isolated cases any more. A conscious effort needs to be made to counter the subconscious bias against women in the world. The double standards impact women and men every day in our company.

In the end, it does not foster diversity of thought, and the less diversity of thought, the more likely we are to make wrong decisions. I enter meetings every day with a certain view of things. Someone else’s views, however, shaped by their life experiences and personality, often help me understand the issue better. Men and women are not the same and we just don’t have the same life experiences. Therefore, women can bring perspectives that men can rarely bring on their own. So, gender diversity is good for our company because it helps us uncover blind spots.

For me, it’s important to defend womanhood. More than defending women, it’s about standing up for the qualities that our male-dominant culture has negated more than valued. Let me give an example. Haven’t you ever been in a meeting where people are arguing and things are not moving forward? I’ve found that by pulling on the more silent voices in the room, often women, new ideas are brought up and solutions can be found. I’m not saying Caterpillar’s culture has suppressed all quiet people, but we can do better.

That’s why it’s so important that we, the men, also get involved. Womanhood is not just about women. It’s about all those strengths that tend to be found more in women, but not exclusively, and regrettably just haven’t been quite valued. In BLMaA, we ask participants what strengths women have (on average, more than men). Here are examples that tend to come back often: emotional intelligence (EO), compassion, sensitivity. Think of what those strengths can do to our company and how it could change it. In a culture where womanhood is valued, there are many things that would just work better, make employees overall happier and make the company more successful.

To conclude here are some things I try to concretely do to improve gender diversity:

  • Pay attention to giving adequate opportunities to male and female staff to speak in meetings.
  • Ensure good ideas are credited back to the originator. This one may seem obvious, but I’ve heard many examples where an idea from a woman was credited to a man – more than the other way around.
  • Ensure social activity and note-taking get assigned to men and women (rotate among staff).
  • Support the reintegration of parents into the workplace upon their return from parental leave.
  • Ask only questions I would ask both genders regarding future career decisions and parenthood.
  • Encouraging those that hire to make sure they ask women to be on the interviewer panel (and to do so myself).

I can only envision a successful Caterpillar in the long term where diversity of thought is valued, at all levels. So, let me invite all of you to join us on this journey, because it’s worth it, at an individual level, at a collective level and at a business level.


Francois Melchner
Technology for Service - Global Lead