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Uncovering our unconscious bias

Uncovering our unconscious bias

08/06/2017 - Rose Osemwengie and Amanda Potter

“0.1%?!” was my shocked reaction when I discovered that this was the level of genetic variation between humans. Thinking back, I realise my shock did not stem so much from the number, as it did from the realisation that such a miniscule and even insignificant percentage has been the cause of so much prejudice, discrimination, bias and racism in human society. If an individual was to be asked overtly “Do you discriminate against others?”, the answer would almost always be “no”. However, most human prejudice is not as obvious as ‘a Board room filled with white middle-aged men’; our unconscious bias plays a vital role in our daily actions, decisions and thinking. In fact, this bias is more problematic, as although it occurs in a split second – “a fleeting thought”- the impact can be extensive.

What is it?

Unconscious bias occurs out of our immediate control and consciousness, and is as much the result of our environmental, personal and cultural background as well as our education and the media. This bias could be based on almost anything from skin colour, sex, age, weight, disability, marital and parental status, to whether a person is introverted or extroverted and what clothes they have on. For instance, one’s immediate thought if an overweight person is spotted at Mc Donald’s might be “You probably shouldn’t be eating that!” before they catch their thoughts and realise their negative bias. Although some of the unconscious bias resonates in our private thoughts where we can often catch ourselves and correct, some also occur in our actions and decisions, which might not be as easy to correct.

It can’t be that bad, can it?

A plethora of research exists uncovering the effects of our unconscious bias. For example, a Yale University study found that male and female scientists, even when they had been specifically trained to reject the subjective, were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4000 more per year (Wilkie, 2015). Another study measuring the impact of stereotypes in children found that our personal biases can also affect our own performance. Asian-American girls between the ages of 5 to 11 performed significantly worse on a separate task after being asked questions focusing on gender (therefore activating their gender identity) however by contrast, they performed significantly better on the task after being asked questions focusing on ethnicity (Ambady et al., 2001).

In organisations, our unconscious bias could, for better or worse, affect our daily decisions.

We recognise that our unconscious bias has implications on how we make decisions but how can we correct something we are not aware of?

1. Create a culture of accountability and acceptability. Acknowledge that while bias can exist “the first step in solving a problem is recognition and understanding”.

2. When making decisions, avoid reaching hasty conclusions, especially those decisions that could have a resounding impact on the organisation. It is important to allow room for revisiting, questioning and rethinking outcomes.

3. Create opportunities for diversity in the workforce. A diverse workforce is more productive, adaptable and able to more effectively execute strategies, as they bring in a wider variety of viewpoints, abilities and strengths.

4. Get a second opinion, for example in recruitment, it is often best practice to hire external assessors and use multiple assessment tools in order to reduce subjective bias, which may especially occur in promotional roles.

As humans, we are all unique and have different personalities, ideas, views, styles and life stories. Our biases help us to understand the world and these differences, they are short cuts that help us to process information easily. However, our shortcuts can sometimes mean that we create and use stereotypes to classify people, sometimes incorrectly. Uncovering and managing these biases so that we protect diversity in the workplace is critical to our business and personal success.

Written by Rose Osemwengie, Business Psychologist, and Dr Amanda Potter, Chartered Occupational Psychologist and CEO of BeTalent and Zircon Management Consulting


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