How I combat unconscious bias in the workplace

Hailey Bell

Hailey Bell is a 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 and her tips for combatting 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.

For example, I once 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 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.

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. 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.

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 more:

Six success strategies from women leaders

Top tips for silencing self-doubt

Seven lessons for aspiring women entrepreneurs