This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity, and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific and Greater China’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with EssenceMediacom.
As discourse around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) evolves, it’s clear that representation alone isn’t enough to create an inclusive environment — it’s an ongoing mission that requires frequent and honest assessment. Being one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse regions of the world, it’s essential to address forms of prejudice that intersect with race, gender, or age in APAC.
While harder to recognise, unconscious bias is just as pervasive as other types of discrimination. Consider its lesser-known forms like confirmation or affinity bias, which are often chalked up to interpersonal chemistry but manifest as cronyism and the term du jour, “nepo babies.”
As EssenceMediacom continues its ongoing efforts to tackle unconscious bias
, we checked in with four leaders from the agency’s APAC markets to hear about what steps they’re taking to continuously dismantle biases.
How does unconscious bias affect an organisation?
Sonali Malaviya, chief strategy & transformation officer, EssenceMediacom South Asia, outlined some of the subtler forms of career-shaping biases — conformity bias, the halo and horns effect, the overconfidence effect, and more — some of which are so normalised that people don’t even realise they’re experiencing them.
Seong-In Kim, AVP for client services at EssenceMediacom South Korea, highlighted some of the common forms of unconscious bias found in the market, including using English fluency as an indicator of intelligence or making assumptions about how deferential an employee may be based on their gender. “Since Korean men are required to serve in the military, it’s sometimes assumed that they tend to follow their bosses’ orders without complaint, resulting in more opportunities or heavier workloads being given to male team members,” she said. With respect for elders being a tenet of Korean culture, Kim further noted, “It’s a common belief that older people should have higher positions at work.”
Sujatha Maniya, chief people officer, APAC, EssenceMediacom, emphasised that unconscious bias is a “natural part of being human,” but observed leaving it unchecked affects hiring, promotion, and project allocation decisions — resulting in a workforce without diversity of thought where non-conforming employees don’t feel respected. Maniya further noted that from an external perspective, unconscious bias can lead organisations to “have a tarnished reputation, which can deter potential clients and partners from associating with the company.”
Reflection, not deflection
How do you address something that is unconscious by definition? “There are signals all around us in the happiness quotient of our employees, attrition rates, exit interviews, and water cooler conversations,” said Malaviya. It’s on us to pick them up, get structured feedback, and let data inform which areas actually need attention.”
Recognising those signals requires education and training that “cuts across all levels, starting from leaders and people managers,” said Maniya, who shared that training in unconscious bias and inclusive leadership is compulsory for leadership roles at EssenceMediacom.
Jeremy McNamara, general manager of EssenceMediacom Melbourne, Australia, agreed and noted that training may be more necessary at the senior level “because we have been living with these biases for a lot longer, and also because those behaviours are being modelled to people in more junior roles.”
One thing everyone agreed on was the importance of maintaining empathy, preferring to “uncover” unconscious biases rather than “call them out.” When addressing biases, McNamara urged people to have conversations with “positive intent to improve, rather than any sense of retribution.”
Alongside anonymous helplines and other employee support forums, Malaviya commended uncovering conversations for “building awareness and giving people strength to deal with their own situations.” One such example took place at the GroupM offices in India, where female employees led a closed-door discussion where they could speak candidly about their experiences. The safe space provided by those discussions provided “rich insights” which were relayed to leaders and executive committees nationwide, resulting in action plans and workstreams designed to tackle everyday biases.
On an organisational level, Maniya shared that EssenceMediacom is rolling out an allyship training programme. “What we want is to empower every Essential so that they can stand up if they see something that isn’t right and be a voice for others,” she said.
Of course, unconscious bias doesn’t start with others. Maniya recommended a technique for self-accountability called STOP (see the other person). “The purpose is to eliminate the seven seconds that it typically takes for us to form a first impression,” she said. As a litmus test for whether unconscious bias is at play, Maniya recommends “replacing one aspect of a person’s identity with another to see if you perceive them differently” — for example, considering whether you’d give the same performance feedback to a female employee if she were a man.
Change from within
Correcting unconscious biases is an ongoing mission — but there are plenty of steps organisations can take to show employees that it’s one they take seriously. At the hiring stages, Maniya noted that “many organisations, ours included, strip out demographic information and similar details from applicants’ CVs.” She further recommended that organisations introduce diverse hiring panels and gauge candidate suitability based on “a clear interview assessment framework.” Other considerations include whether an interview venue is accessible for people with physical disabilities, or whether sufficient notice has been given for an interview slot to account for childcare arrangements.
In Korea, Kim shared that EssenceMediacom used to rely on English-based online training, but started changing its onboarding processes to accommodate employees at different levels of English fluency, “which brought forth very productive discussions.”
Meanwhile, McNamara outlined some of the strides EssenceMediacom has taken to address bias more broadly to support inclusivity, such as overhauling recruitment policies, introducing gender-neutral parental leave, and tackling stigmas around gender and age. Citing the agency’s recently-introduced menopause policy as an example, he noted that the biases that older women experience from menopause can impact their decision to exit the workforce earlier than men, and further contribute to a gender gap in superannuation — Australia’s national retirement savings plan — “meaning that women can retire with less superannuation than men.”
Doing the work
Addressing unconscious biases also has a measurable impact on the work an agency produces. McNamara noted that “unconscious biases can impact target demographics in obvious ways, like targeting cleaning products to women or tech products to men.” While he commented that “the industry has gotten better over the years,” unconscious bias still filters through to client briefs in more complex ways.
“What advertisers and agencies really need to understand is that it isn’t just demographics that we need to keep in check, but also the tech platforms and algorithms that are being used to reach audiences,” he said. “Our responsibility as the agency is not just to do what we’re told, but to guide our clients through those challenges and educate them respectfully on how to avoid biases.”
As part of EssenceMediacom Australia’s efforts to embed inclusivity within its planning process, the agency has recruited for a brand-new role of inclusive media planning director with a remit across all its clients nationally. “This role has a focus on challenging the bias of how we reach diverse and inclusive audiences, through audience-first targeting of linguistically diverse, LGBTQI, or First Nations audiences, as well as responsible investment into the partners we engage with to ensure we are supporting those very communities. Both elements are too often forgotten through unconscious bias or assumed through broad-demographic targeting,” said McNamara. “There is absolutely an onus on us as the agency to not only educate clients through their own practices but to show them through our own processes that we’re mitigating unconscious bias.”
Kim agreed, and added, “As an agency, we can offer a third-party viewpoint by identifying unconscious biases that may have been missed from the client side. We are also responsible for proposing inclusive strategies and plans, and can provide clients with data to demonstrate the increased effectiveness of diverse and inclusive campaigns.”