How I combat unconscious bias in the workplace

Hailey Bell

Hailey Bell is the IT Audit Director at BP and previously held a senior management role at a Big Four accounting firm in London. We asked Hailey to share her career story, what she’s learnt about mentoring and how to combat gender bias in the workplace.

How did you get to where you are today, and who helped you along the way?

After finishing university, I went straight into a trainee accountant role at a Big Four firm in Zimbabwe. I spent ten years with the firm there, travelling around the world for work before taking the plunge to move to London. Eventually I decided to take on a new challenge at BP.

I’d say that my relationships, both personal and professional, have played a key role in building my career. I’ve been managed by some really fantastic leaders: people who have recognised my potential, inspired me, pushed me and helped to facilitate opportunities for me to grow.

Equally, I’ve experienced some difficult working relationships and management styles, and these have also been pivotal experiences that have helped to shape my career. In addition to offering a template of how not to lead, these negative experiences have, at different points, spurred me on to make decisions about the kinds of teams I want to work in and whether my work and environment truly reflects who I want to be as a person.

Have you personally experienced implicit or explicit gender bias? If so, did you feel able to challenge it?

At the beginning of my career, my manager made the decision to withdraw me from a project because the client wanted a man to manage their account. At the time, I made allowances for my manager for making that decision. Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t stand up for myself, but it’s difficult to speak out particularly at a more junior level. As I’ve moved into more senior roles, my ability to challenge bias has grown.

In your experience, what are the key hindrances affecting women’s career progression?

I’d say the assumptions people make about what women want in their careers and how they work are a significant challenge that needs to be overcome.

I recently participated in a team discussion about how being required to travel for work could be difficult for working mothers. However, one female team member highlighted how travel was something she really wanted to experience in her career. She said she was concerned that she could be overlooked because of the assumption that she wouldn’t want to be away from her family. For me, this reflects the importance of not making assumptions but instead facilitating discussions in which people with different experiences can share their perspectives. Each of us is guilty of bias, but by engaging with people different from ourselves, we can draw out our own biases and learn how to avoid them clouding our judgements.

What held you back in your career, and how did you overcome it?

Confidence isn’t something that comes naturally to me, but it wasn’t until quite recently in my career that I realised that my lack of self-belief had become my biggest barrier to progression. BP runs a self-advocacy forum, which offers staff the opportunity to discuss their careers and gain practical advice from leaders within the business. It takes a lot of courage to ask for an external perspective of your career, but, for me, it was a pivotal moment.

When I met with two members of the leadership team, they were very open about the fact that I wasn’t capitalising on my potential and that I had been looking to others to push me to the next step in my career. I was given the advice to be bold and jump in feet first and having that encouragement and support from my leaders made that possible and led to me moving into my current role of IT Audit Director.

What have you learnt about mentoring?

As I’ve progressed in my career, one of the key lessons I’ve learnt is that you can’t do everything on your own, and mentoring can offer a lot of value at every stage of your career.

While formal mentoring has definitely helped my career progression, implicit mentoring has played an equal part. I’ve always been careful to surround myself with people that are very different from me and have developed what I call a ‘personal board’ – a network of relationships, both personal and professional, that inspire and challenge me by pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to consider perspectives other than my own.

My personal board has been a great resource for understanding my value and appreciating how other people’s working styles could further enhance it. For example, a former manager once shared with me that he had applied for a role despite not meeting all the criteria because he was looking for something that would challenge him. This was a great lesson for me as it gave me an insight into how men navigate their careers. For me, this really illustrates how important it is to be mentored by people with experiences that are different from your own.

What is your business doing to achieve gender parity in the workplace?

BP has a strong focus on being inclusive. We operate in an industry that relies heavily on roles requiring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills - which have historically attracted more men. We have actively worked with schools, encouraging boys and girls alike to consider STEM careers.

We have improved the way we hire. And we have changed the way we support progression. We know, for example, that it’s not enough to just recruit from a more diverse talent pool. We are aware that retention and progression of women in our workforce is an important issue and we are working with our employees to improve and implement diversity-friendly policies to enable career development in a flexible way.

Our gender balance at BP is steadily improving, with women representing 34% of BP’s global population and 21% of group leaders – our most senior managers – at the end of 2017. Our aim is for women to represent at least 25% of group leaders by 2020. We know that there is more to do, and we remain committed to taking action.

What do you do personally when recruiting to encourage gender diversity?

All hiring managers at BP have to undergo unconscious bias training and we have guidelines in place to ensure that every interview panel is diverse. These resourcing guidelines support BP’s gender goals and our principles for diversity best practice in recruitment.

As a result, BP always aims to have a diverse range of candidates, and we spend time considering every step of the job application process to see how we can cast our nets wide and appeal to the widest pool of talent possible.

For example, we review our job specifications to see if the way they are written means certain candidates may be excluded. We also consider carefully where we place our job adverts to ensure that we capture the most diverse pool possible. This thinking has also led us to step back further in our talent pipeline and look at how we can encourage more women to study STEM subjects. For example, BP encourages its staff, to participate in schools mentoring programmes. I take part in mentoring sessions with girls in a local primary school to raise awareness of my industry and the opportunities available for girls.

What are your three top pieces of advice for women wanting to succeed in their career?

Firstly, I’ll reiterate that it’s good to recognise that you can’t do it all on your own. Surround yourself with people that inspire you and that have perspectives and experiences that are very different from your own. You can learn so much from other people – you just need to be prepared to ask and open to taking their feedback on board.

Secondly, always be authentic. Attempting to mould yourself into a shape that doesn’t fit takes up a lot of energy that could be better spent on doing your job in a style that suits you.

Finally, know who you are. It takes courage to speak about your talent and value with confidence, but if you believe in yourself, it makes it a lot easier for others to believe in you too. 

Read our career secrets from inspiring women for five ways to progress in your career.