Breaking Down the Barriers: How Companies Can Remove Biases in the Workplace

June 22, 2021

Removing barriers to employment has numerous benefits for employees and the utilities industry

About the author:

Leaundra McCullough is the GIS Lead for Hopeworks. McCullough can be reached at [email protected].

The water industry, like many others, is facing biases within their organizations causing a barrier that needs to be removed. Being biased is a tendency all humans possess of being in favor of or against one thing, individual, or group compared with another. Biases in the workplace are a huge barrier, preventing people from effectively working together and damaging the development of creative and innovative ideas.

In a world of increasing instability and uncertainty, it is critical for companies to tap into the strengths and talents of all employees regardless of gender, ethnic background, age, beliefs or personal preferences. But how can the utilities industry and your company get started with breaking down biases and improving their workplaces to achieve their goals?

[Related Content]: Listen to Talking Under Water Episode 36: Balance & Belonging

Unconscious Bias Affecting the Workplace

Breaking bias is eliminating one-sided viewpoints to be more open-minded and inclusive of different people and ideas, so everyone feels included and accepted. Biases surface in the workplace through the employees. People have their own subconscious biases that emerge in the workplace that are shown in the individuals the organization hires, employees in management positions and peers who may be making more money, even though they have the same education and experience.

The effects of unconscious bias can be most felt in the workplace, where social categorizations such as gender, ethnicity, age, beliefs and personal preferences continue to impact hiring and employee promotions. Many individuals get accustomed to certain patterns and are more comfortable with the way things are being done, so they may not recognize change is needed and are not open to accepting it unless it comes from the right person. These biases negatively impact the organization by bringing tension, confusion and anger to all employees, making the workplace unproductive and moving forward to achieve company goals a struggle.

Unconscious bias affects the workplace by introducing unintentional discrimination that can result in poor decision-making, causing a huge setback in creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. It has been shown that such biases can have a direct impact on hiring practices such as recruitment, mentoring, promotions and retention rates. These biases can obstruct equal opportunities for women in terms of selection and progression to a high-level management position and leadership role.

Women in the Water Utilities Industry

Women have a persona of raising children, supporting families, caring for the elderly, and so on. Their responsibilities have even grown throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, taking more on while they try to build their careers and achieve well-deserved promotions. Social norms create the different biases women face in not just the water utilities industry, but all industries, that limit their opportunities for growth in their roles and advancements in leadership. The majority of C-level suite executives are male, and women are often forced to prove to leadership and management that they are as capable and ready as men for additional responsibilities.

According to research, less than one in five water workers are women. One of the major challenges service providers and the nation are facing is the critical and unprecedented staff shortage in the water workforce that operates and maintains essential drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. By expanding the talent pool and encouraging women to start their career in the utilities industry, a company can help address the issue of gender bias and inequality, while also addressing the sector’s evolving needs. The ever-changing environment of work in utilities not only poses significant staffing challenges but also presents the sector with opportunities to modernize and diversify the workforce. Providing more women the opportunity to pursue a career in the utilities industry will provide a greater variety of ideas and solutions.

To increase career development opportunities for women, employers can provide training options that work both for men and women, mentorship opportunities, female-led programs and they can make a concentrated effort to be inclusive of women when it comes to the company’s long-term plans.

Identify Opportunities for Youth and Women in the Utilities Industry

Utility jobs offer a career path toward a sustainable future, with fewer educational barriers than other fields. Investing in youth and women and identifying opportunities to develop their workforce skills with the potential for advancement will build a more resilient and adaptable workforce ready to meet the challenges and opportunities in the utilities industry. Companies need to ensure that there are meaningful and different pathways for young people and women that will lead to high-quality jobs and a supply of workers who have mastered the skills necessary to succeed.

Biases can push women away from certain roles. Retention of women in the utilities industry is often hindered by a lack of proactive policies and an inequitable environment. However, the industry can address the challenges of retaining a skilled female workforce by introducing family-friendly policies and improving working facilities. Women are also not always offered the same opportunities as their male counterparts, which is an additional challenge to retention. This can be addressed by increasing training opportunities and offering mentorship programs.

Overcoming Workplace Biases

Initiating the conversation is the first and most important step to overcoming bias in the workplace with the intention to change and improve its atmosphere. A toxic work environment can be created when an individual at a workplace feels like they’re not heard, not welcomed and undervalued. These biases can be tackled when the company’s policies and leadership support a positive working environment, where the employees want to support each other.

A benefit to removing bias in the workplace is cohesion. The company will have a united group of different individuals who will want to work with one another to achieve the same goals, making everything operate more smoothly and run more effectively, creating a real space for teamwork to generate that will, in the end, benefit the business and all the employees.

As a starting point, companies should hire a diverse group of upper management individuals that have different experiences, backgrounds and upbringings to relate with and reflect the staff. Other tactics can include staff training to create a diverse workplace, assigning more projects and assignments for employees to collaborate on, but most importantly, acknowledging that biases exist in the company.

This can require tapping into new approaches and solutions to meet emerging needs. By hiring, managing and training a more diverse mix of employees, new and fresh perspectives can help shape the future of the water industry.

Everyone is affected by biases and proactive measures need to be taken to put an end to it to make the industry stronger and better prepared to serve the customers. There are different opportunities and approaches that leaders are already tapping into to diversify their workforce and create a more inclusive workplace. But, there is still more work that needs to be done. These are barriers all industries are experiencing and there are plenty of opportunities to break and remove them. As companies continue to identify challenges and opportunities for their employees, organizations like Hopeworks, a social enterprise based in Camden, New Jersey, that uses technology, healing and entrepreneurship to transform lives, are ready to help with solutions and provide their expertise.

About the Author

Leaundra McCullough

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