#WomenExcel: Are You Aware of Your Unconscious Bias?

Sep 21, 2015 10:05 AM ET
Campaign: Thought Leadership
As part of the AECOM Impact blog’s #WomenExcel series, Jill Bruning, executive vice president and general manager within AECOM’s intelligence community and services department, discusses awareness of unconscious biases.

AECOM Impact blog

Jill Bruning, executive vice president and general manager within AECOM’s intelligence community and services department, discusses awareness of unconscious biases.

Early in my career as a mechanical engineer, I was counseled on how to speak and how to dress. As a woman, you adapted by downplaying your differences such as your appearance. So you did silly things like wear closed-toe shoes, style your hair in a bun, and only wear black or navy blue. Although gender bias was not a conscious topic that was discussed, the unconscious idea was that you shouldn’t stand out too much.

I believe we all have experienced unconscious bias — an implicit association or attitude (about race or gender, for example) that operates beyond our control and awareness, informs our perception of a person or social group, and can influence our decision-making and behavior toward the target of the bias. It is a normal part of how our brain filters information, which is not necessarily a bad thing; however, in the workplace, this can lead to bad decisions if we are unaware of our filters.

In my 35-year career, there has been a lot of progress in gender diversity in engineering companies, and we can celebrate that women can now be more authentic in their work lives. I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to be discriminatory. But once you are aware of it, you need to take action and spread awareness to start the chain of making a difference. Fortunately, we are now working at a time when it is okay to have conversations about unconscious bias. It is important that we take advantage of this opportunity if we want our companies to thrive in the long-term.

Gender diversity is not just a feel-good thing; data confirms that gender-diverse teams improve business performance. Inclusiveness and diversity create business value as organizations with the most gender diversity at the leadership and board levels have higher shareholder return, higher revenue, more customers, and greater market share than homogeneous teams.

My advice related to unconscious bias includes:

  • Once we become aware of unconscious biases, we can talk about it, make changes and take action. Don’t be afraid to bring your own personal biases into your awareness and confront them.
  • If your group is stuck in decision-making, consider bringing in someone who can offer a different perspective. Diversity can include gender, age, global experience, background and/or ethnicity; we have so many ways to engage our diversity.
  • Consider diversity when composing teams. There are many studies indicating that diverse teams are more innovative, more productive, and more likely to stay on schedule and budget.
  • Be an advocate for inclusion. Sometimes it just takes one person to say something. This is a conversation we need to be comfortable having.

As a member of AECOM’s Global Diversity + Inclusion Taskforce, I am continuously pushed to examine my own thinking and to have serious conversations about unconscious biases within the company and with our clients. I am passionate and committed to diversity and inclusion at AECOM and believe we are progressing in this space. I am a strong proponent that an increased focus on diversity and inclusion will not only improve our company, but will make the world a better place.

Check out more thought leadership posts on the AECOM Impact blog!

AECOM is a premier, fully integrated professional and technical services firm positioned to design, build, finance and operate infrastructure assets around the world for public- and private-sector clients. The firm’s global staff — including architects, engineers, designers, planners, scientists and management and construction services professionals — serves clients in over 150 countries around the world. AECOM is ranked as the #1 engineering design firm by revenue in Engineering News-Record magazine’s annual industry rankings, and has been recognized by Fortune magazine as a World’s Most Admired Company. The firm is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, oil and gas, water, high-rise buildings and government. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation and technical excellence in delivering customized and creative solutions that meet the needs of clients’ projects. A Fortune 500 firm, AECOM companies, including URS Corporation and Hunt Construction Group, had revenue of approximately $19 billion during the 12 months ended June 30, 2015. More information on AECOM and its services can be found at www.aecom.com

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