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broken ladderI have described three unconscious mind-sets that give rise to obstacles for women. These obstacles are why few businesses are capturing the documented business value of gender diversity at the top.  They are: the “double bind,” the “comfort principle” and “unconscious images.” If we make these mind-sets conscious, we can DO something about them. The result will be inclusive cultures where both men and women can reach their potential.

We all have images of how things look. Unconscious images of how leaders look and act can create barriers for those who do not match our images – either in appearance or in styles of working and leading. In a recent blog, I told the true story of a very talented woman who was passed over because she led collaboratively rather than “from the front.” Despite superior results, she did not “look the part.” She became discouraged; the company lost a valued leader.

What can we DO about the existence of unconscious images? Think about this very human phenomenon as a blind spot. You are aware of the blind spot in your car. You stop before changing lanes and compensate for the blind spot. If you are aware that you have pictures of how leadership or success “looks,” you can stop your automatic thinking. Pause when you are doing performance evaluations or considering making a promotion. Are you NOT seeing a person’s results or contributions because he or she does not “look the part”? When filling a job or team, are you NOT thinking of someone who could do a great job but does not fit the usual image?

What can women and others affected by unconscious images do? If your style of dress or hairstyle is very different from the norm in your organization, consider whether you might make some changes to look more professional. (Conforming in appearance does not mean giving up your authentic style.) Take it on yourself to be sure your boss (or personal evaluating you or handing out good work) knows about your skills and your results. Acknowledge your approach may be different but show how it has worked well. If tooting your own horn is hard for you (a common thing among women), practice. Make a deal with co-workers to “toot” (talk about) their successes if they will toot about yours.

To make someone else aware of this obstacle, be sure to avoid blame or judgment. Remember it is human to have unconscious pictures of how things look. The barriers that arise from them are not intentional or malicious.

What you have done to make sure you do not make choices based on who fits your unconscious images? What have you done to minimize the negative effects of unconscious images on you?