The challenges of bias

We recently attended a seminar hosted by Claire Williams at Inclusive Employers, which included a particularly interesting discussion on the impact of unconscious bias. We thought it worth sharing so that such prejudices can be avoided.

“A father and his son were involved in a car accident in which the father was killed and the son seriously injured. The father was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and his body was taken to a local morgue. The son was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and was immediately wheeled into an emergency operating room. A surgeon was called. Upon arrival and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon exclaimed “Oh my God, it’s my son!”

(Pendry, Driscoll and Field)

What is your immediate reaction to this anecdote? Are you in the 40% of people who simply cannot figure out who this surgeon could be as the father is already dead? Or have you managed to work out that the surgeon is in fact the child’s mother?

If you are in that 40%, do not beat yourself up. This is a common mistake and a perfect example of unconscious bias. Because the society we live in through media, experiences and many other things teaches us that most surgeons are men, this is automatically the first conclusion we reach and our unconscious part of the brain overrides our logical thinking so we cannot figure out who this surgeon could be.

The human brain is made up of the conscious and unconscious. Unfortunately, the conscious side is very lazy and our unconscious side does nearly all of the work. The unconscious absorbs our experiences and surroundings and this is why we have unconscious bias.

There has been a great deal of hype in the media recently about a television programme called “Benefits Street”, which portrayed people who live in social housing. The programme was particularly emotive and generated significant debate, because it played on both the conscious and unconscious bias most of us have towards either the right or left of the political spectrum.

Indeed the media generally is powerful in shaping our experience of a world we can’t see first-hand; we all know how newspapers can put a different twist on the same facts to suit their own political and social bias (and desired readership). The danger is that we don’t recognise this and other influencers, which then allows a skewed perspective to become a part of our subconscious response to our external environment.

So how does unconscious bias affect our day-to-day business life?

Most of us, and certainly those working in HR, will be aware of the protected characteristics detailed in the Equality Act 2010. We are all very conscious of these and make sure that we do not discriminate against candidates, colleagues and clients.

But what about the unconscious bias that undoubtedly affects the way we recruit our staff, the service providers we decide to use and, in general, the way we do business?

Biologically we are hard-wired to prefer people who look like us, sound like us and share our interests. Being aware of what biases we have and how strong they are equips us to better manage our unconscious biases because we know which groups may trigger our unconscious categories and when we may need to be more vigilant.

Managing unconscious bias is not just of benefit to others. If we can control and manage our unconscious biases it releases cognitive and emotional resources. These resources lead to better/fairer decision making and ultimately a more diverse and effective workforce.

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