How to tackle unconscious bias in your workplace

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How to tackle unconscious bias in your workplace

According to the University of California, bias is “a prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences.” There are types of biases; conscious bias and unconscious bias.

“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising.”

This tendency to organise social worlds into categories has served an evolutionary purpose – the human brain has developed to subconsciously process huge amounts of information in an instant in order to quickly identify risks and threats. It allows humans to react without having to slowly process each decision it is making.

Diversity Australia says that unconscious biases are learned through experiences and can operate outside of intentional conscious cognition. “This stereotype may be associated with one event that we may have seen in the past, but the source of these associations may be misidentified, or even unknown by the individual who holds them.”

In some instances unconscious bias can cause people to struggle with experiences that they are not personally familiar with. One example of unconscious bias is that when YouTube first launched the video upload feature for its app on Apple’s iOS, developers noticed that 5-10% of videos were being uploaded upside down. Rather than this being caused by users shooting their videos incorrectly, Google’s engineers had optimised the app for right-handed users. The feature had been built so that when phones were turned 90 degrees from their original upright position to film in landscape mode, left-handed users were effectively turning the camera upside down. This is an example of how the needs of one group (left-handed people) were not met because the developers were working on the unconscious (and erroneous) assumption that everybody was just like them i.e. right-handed.

While these unconscious biases continue to serve crucial purposes day-to-day, when shortlisting and selecting applicants for a role, it is absolutely necessary to try to be aware of these biases, and to challenge them if they are unfounded. This is particularly important when a recruiter’s biases disqualifies an otherwise very qualified and competent candidate.

In 2012 Yale University researchers asked 127 scientists to review a job application of identically qualified male and female students and found that the faculty members – both men and women – consistently scored a male candidate higher on a number of criteria such as competency and were more likely to hire the male.

Diversity Australia stresses that unconscious bias “can persist even when an individual rejects the stereotype explicitly.” This is borne out by a study by the Australian National University which found that Chinese job applicants must submit 68% more applications to get an interview than those with Anglo-Saxon names. People with Middle Eastern names must submit 64% more, Indigenous 35% more and Italian 12% more. It is unlikely that the cause of these significantly higher submission rates for non-Anglo-Saxon names is explicit racism; it is unlikely that every single employer who knocked back the otherwise qualified Chinese job applicant explicitly decided not to hire them because they were Chinese. What is far more likely is that many of those employers were swayed by unconscious biases.

Combatting unconscious bias is difficult but certainly possible to some extent. The first step is to identify what some of your biases are. There are a range of online tests that can indicate what areas you may have unconscious biases in. The Harvard Implicit-Association Test is a good place to start.

Once you have identified the areas where you have a meaningful degree of unconscious bias, you need to begin identifying the situations when that bias is kicking in. This will involve some active self-reflection. Consider the people you like most in your workplace and identify what it is that makes you like them. Then consider the people you like least and why. Also think about the people you feel neutral towards. Expand this exercise to people outside of your work. Another possible exercise is identifying the thoughts you have when in the company of strangers – while in cafes, or on public transport, in doctor’s waiting room or out on the street, pick someone nearby and imagine what kinds of stereotypes could be applied to them. As you run through the stereotypes consider whether any of them ring true – distinguish between the stereotypes you are simply identifying as possible to ascribe to the stranger and any stereotypes that you are (even only partially) actually buying into.

Finally, when making shortlists of successful job applicants and conducting interviews, make sure the there are other selectors involved who ideally are different from yourself. A diverse panel is more likely to have different unconscious biases, enabling them to be kept in check.

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