• Donnington Grove

The Venus Awards, Simply the best!

Simply the best!

Equality, diversity and inclusive behaviour: Good practice ideas for Venus Awards sponsors

By Professor Ellie Highwood, Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading

 “Professor Ellie Highwood, has some interesting and useful insights as to how we can avoid pitfalls and ensure the best candidates do not get overlooked. It’s not easy to fairly judge awards, especially when there are so many impressive people to choose from. I hope this will be useful to you.“

Tara Howard, Venus Founder (Middle)

The Venus Awards are all about breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes about women in business.

So everyone who is nominated for a Venus Award is in some senses a winner. But eventually, in any competition, decisions have to be made.

All of us like to think we make clear, rational, fair decisions most of the time, and make everyone feel welcome, such that the best person always wins. But there are reasons why this might not always be the case.

All of us have a set of pre-conceived ideas, or biases, based on their experiences and background.

This is normal and can be useful, allowing us to sort through the huge amounts of information presented to us every second in order to make decisions, such as where to cross the road.

Other biases, operating at an unconscious level, can cause problems where they have a negative impact on how we made decisions.

For example, we know that it is illegal under the Equality Act to discriminate in terms of age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy and maternity, race, or religious faith.

We wouldn’t consciously make decisions that discriminated against these groups, but because of our own experiences and background, biases may unintentionally affect how we think or act without us even realising.

For example, we might feel more positively toward people who have the same background, colour or experiences as us.

This may happen without us even really understanding why, such as feeling that people dressed more conservatively would be better in an office environment than those who don’t.

As sponsors we are all keen to ensure that the Venus Awards, which are all about celebrating and rewarding women in business, are as inclusive as possible. So how might issues of unconscious bias be relevant? One example is that many of the areas in which the Venus Awards operate have ethnically diverse populations.

There is, therefore, no reason to expect successful business women not to be part of all these different communities, but this may not always be reflected in the nominations and winners. So it is really important that we think about why and make sure that our processes and decisions don’t form part of the problem.

The most important thing we can all do is to be aware that unconscious biases exist, even where we are totally committed to equality and fairness. It’s not a criticism – it’s just a by-product of how we are wired. There are ways that we can minimise its effects:

  • Taking time over decisions – our underlying assumptions and preconceptions are more likely to influence us where we are making decisions quickly or under pressure
  • Having clear criteria against which we judge the applicants, and record the reasons for decisions – that causes us to think consciously about our decisions
  • Involving a team in making decisions – we all have different background and experiences, which is useful in making sure our decisions reflect a range of perspectives.


Our processes should also make clear that we are open an inclusive. For example, we can:


  • Make contact with a wider range of people, get to know them as individuals and advertise the Venus Awards to them.
  • Focus our judgements, selection criteria and processes on how people behave as individuals, and being aware of unhelpful stereotypes.
  • Use inclusive language – as English is constantly evolving and changing, there are terms that were previously acceptable which are now considered offensive, even where we think we are using them in an innocent, joking or light-hearted way.
  • Make sure everyone can access our venues and means of selection easily – the onus on us is to ask and provide what support they need.


Useful resources

We may think we aren’t affected by unconscious bias but the reality is that we all are, even if it’s just a bit – we can’t help it! Project Implicit provides some really interesting resources that can help us understand some of the subtle unconscious associations we didn’t even know we had.

This video from the Royal Society explains a bit more about unconscious bias and its effects.

A good example of clear judging criteria is published here by the Telstra Business awards