Unconscious bias in the boardroom: the man who gave me his coat

Vanella Jackson
Unconscious bias in the boardroom Vanella Jackson hero

It struck me that I was the only woman, but I knew there was one more who was going to join the meeting. Everyone was milling around introducing themselves to one another, when one flustered straggler arrived late. He quickly scanned the room, came directly up to me and handed me his coat. I told him I didn't know where the closet was. He was obviously mortified by his mistake. He'd simply assumed, being the only woman in the room I must be the hostess.

Along a similar vein I remember when I told my boss at the time that I'd like to be considered for the role of Global CEO alongside my US male colleague. “Oh”, he said, “I didn't think you'd want to. Don’t you have a family? What about your kids?" Again, it was unconscious thinking on his part rather than any view about my ability to do the job. Once I had asked, he championed me all the way.

Truthfully, I'd assumed they would have considered me without my needing to ask. After all, I'd been doing a good job. I was shocked when it became apparent that they weren’t, and that I did have to ask. I think that women can often make this mistake. Assume that their hard work will be noticed, rather than making what they want explicitly clear.

These things happened a while ago. Since then the company had made huge strides to address the gender imbalance within teams and leadership. The rapid progress Omnicom had made and its clear commitment to inclusion and equality is inspiring.

Nevertheless, I tell you these stories because, although we have made huge headway in our goal of equality, we still have a way to go. Unconscious bias is hard to uproot.

I feel lucky working for Omnicom. There are lots of fabulous, talented women and men all doing an amazing job. All great role models for the next generation. My industry – research, strategy and insight – is also full of brilliant women, although I'd like to see more of them at the top.

The best teams are the ones that have the widest range of different people and an equal balance of men and women

Being a woman has, for the most part, been an advantage in my career. Over the years I found myself in many situations where I was the only woman on the team. This helped me stand out and bring something different to the conversation. Men and women are different, and teams that embrace difference are the strongest.

At Hall & Partners I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by some wonderful, talented people – women and men. We have some great female leaders throughout the company who I admire hugely for their tenacity, courage and leadership. I have learnt from them all.

Along the way, I’ve also learnt that the best teams are the ones that have the widest range of different people and an equal balance of men and women. This clearly extends beyond gender. Our leadership is purposefully diverse.

Talking to my daughters and the young women who work with me, I realise that in the past I have taken a lot of bad behaviour for granted. From casual sexism all the way through to poor behaviour – it all just seemed 'normal'. It's to be expected from some kinds of men. I love the outrage of these young women, and their totally conviction that it is not acceptable. At their age I just accepted it the way it was. Men will be men.

However, it's really important that we also accept that not all men are the same. And that we recognise that the majority of men love working with women. Men love women.

My fear is that all the outrage pushes men away. It stops them saying openly and honestly the things they feel and experience, creating what I call “tiptoe” men who don’t dare say what they really think in case they upset you. Political niceness pushing away honesty. I believe the opportunity is for men to join women in calling out bad behaviour and helping us all create real change.

I hope on International Women’s Day that we draw strength and inspiration from each other, but also throw our arms open to supportive, brilliant men, engaging them in the quest for equality and inclusion. And never forgetting that men and women are different. That’s what we love about each other, and that's why when we work together we are at our best.