An unconscious resistance to change

At Optimiss, we assist many companies to make positive changes for women in the workplace. Often it only takes one or two company champions to really get things moving, however these champions almost always come back to us asking the same question: “why is there resistance to change?”

Resistance to change is often experienced from men and women who would outwardly appear committed to promoting opportunities for women.

The term ‘unconscious bias’ is used to explain a situation in which stereotypes influence how people process information in relation to other people. A bias occurs when a person has a preference for another sort of person. People often aren’t aware (hence, the ‘unconscious’) that they have these preferences. This becomes a problem in the workplace as people tend to recruit and promote people like themselves, rather than applying a merit selection process. This is often referred to in the Human Resources world as the ‘mini-me syndrome’.

Just as unconscious bias shapes how people give preference to others without thinking about it, unconscious resistance explains how people resist recruiting, promoting and retaining certain types of people without thinking about it

Your managers are not resisting gender diversity as such, but rather the possibility that they might have to manage a team made up of men and women, something they may not be equipped to do. Can they communicate effectively with both men and women? Are they comfortable with negotiating flexible work arrangements with staff who are parents? If not, give them training in these skills. A manager who is worried about their own ability to work with women in their team will resist gender diversity. Give them the tools and the confidence to use them, and they will be more open to diversity in their teams.

When it comes to gender diversity, all employees have a part to play. Organisational change does not occur at just one level – it must be modelled by top management right through to the base-level employees. In order to empower staff to move towards gender diversity in the workplace, the organisation must create norms and values relating to diversity understanding. The norms of an organisation include things like attitudes, beliefs and values that are particular to that company. When the norms begin to change, that is when we will see real workplace cultural change occurring.

If you’re interested in the psychology of change management, here is a recent article by McKinsey & Company on the subject.