Barriers, Bias and Beliefs


We can all relate to these three words – Barriers, Bias and Beliefs. Whether we admit it or not, whether we fight it or embrace it, they seem to have a way of permeating every corner and crevice of life.

Stop for a moment and consider this question. ‘What factors have supported you to attain in your working career?’

This is the very same question I asked many people whilst doing my research. I was surprised that the majority of people struggled to answer the question. Did you? They could easily tell me what got in the way of them progressing forward, but not what helped them. I soon realised I had to stop, and really listen to what they were saying, immerse myself in their stories, to understand and connect the dots to why they faced these challenges.

There were structural barriers such as lack of childcare and career development support for women and minority groups. There were bias and stereotypes around what it takes to be a leader that were pervasive such as the numerous glass barrier theories – for example, the Glass Cliff (A phrase termed by Ryan and Haslam (2005), a glass cliff position, a precarious leadership position for a woman which carries risk. ) provided the evidence-base that these invisible barriers exist and can be measured.

Men talked about barriers such as a long work hours culture which stopped them being present for their families and attending events with their kids or having time for hobbies and a life outside of work. There was bias against men who wanted to be actively involved in parenting their children or who were part of the LGBTQ community. I saw this in my own family, when a close relative had to pretend to play the straight man in work and in the board room until company, cultural and societal barriers and bias started to change and he could bring his whole self to work as a gay man.

The one which really hit home were the limiting beliefs which come from social conditioning such as – family of origin and upbringing, educational and early working-life experiences. These limiting beliefs were formed from lived experiences and inhibited progression through self-doubt, fear of failure, reluctance to take opportunities and lack of confidence. More often than not in a work context, they are more likely to affect women and minority groups.

Early life experiences, teachings and learning all play their part in how we think, feel and behave and essentially what we will attain in the future. These limiting beliefs do not cease to exist here. They can be ingrained in our psyche and identity, long after cultural barriers have been removed.

I doubt many people can say they’ve never experienced feelings of uncertainty in their professional careers, even if it was only for a fleeting moment. Although, feelings of doubt and apprehension can be normal at work, persistently feeling this way is not.

Over the years legislation has been developed to protect women (Equal Pay Act 1970), people of colour (Race Relations Act 1968), disabilities (Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and more recently the Equality Act 2010  protecting people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. Although legalisation has been implemented, it doesn’t eradicate the fact that people (women, ethnic minorities, people of colour, LGBTQ communities) have been dramatically underrepresented for decades in the workplace and beyond.

Systemic discrimination is insidious and has been created through years of oppression and acceptance of poor behaviour drawn from people in leadership roles. These types of barriers, level of systemic bias and limiting beliefs placed on others, inhibit people to be able to truly thrive. People not reaching their potential and attaining greater heights, are all interlinked. Exclusion plays a big part in self-doubt, confidence and anxiety. How can people progress if they are continually disparaged?

What has changed since I originally asked the question ‘What factors have supported you to attain in your working career?’ are the social scientists who have dedicated their academic careers to providing the evidence-base along with their lived experiences and narratives producing great work and getting published which will, in time, drive the necessary change. Here’s an example below of what barriers, bias and (limiting) beliefs looks like in real life.

“differences in behavior arise not because of differences in how men and women are, but in how men and women are treated. This is what the evidence shows: women are less likely to get useful feedback, their mistakes are judged more harshly and remembered longer, their behavior is scrutinized more carefully, and their colleagues are less likely to share vital information with them. When women speak, they’re more likely to be interrupted or ignored.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?:

Leaders must create a working environment that fosters a culture of diversity and inclusion with a variety of leadership styles. Recruiting, retaining and reskilling people from all denominations, races, cultures, genders, disabilities and the LGBTQ community, and ensuring the conditions and environment are right for people to grow authentically. This will strengthen businesses, improve creativity, productivity and have a bigger global impact.

Coming Soon – See Me – the app where you can see your intersecting identities in your work context.