Unconscious Bias

Slide1When a WDF meeting comes with pre-reading we know we’re getting down to the serious stuff!

On Tuesday 28th March we welcomed Sarah Boddey, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Northern Trust, to talk to us about unconscious bias. Sarah  reminding us that traditionally there has been an assumption that patterns of discimination in organisations were seen as deliberate, i.e. “good people” are inclusive and “bad people” are biased. Resulting in the approach that all we needed to do was find the bad people, fix them and then the problem would go away. The work on unconscious bias recognises this approach is flawed since, by our very nature as humans, our survival is dependent on our ability to make fast automatic decisions based on very little information, resulting in us drawing on pre-stored biased stereotypes.

Such unconscious bias affects recruitment, selection for projects, promotion and many other aspects determining how we will succeed in our careers, with those making the flawed assessments convinced of the rightness of their decision making. Numerous studies from blind auditions to simply reminding women they are women before a math test, have proved how these biases operate.

Thus the key to working successfully with unconscious bias is for us to all admit to our biases. One way we can do this is through the Harvard Implicit test. I took this test some years ago and despite numerous efforts since, still come out as moderately biased when it comes to gender. Last year in an attempt to convince a group of senior men and women that they too were biased, I forwarded the test link to them and invited them to complete it, one by one the results came back showing either no bias or very little bias –

I was flummoxed! Was it actually only me? Was I, the founder of a women’s organisation to redress gender imbalance, the most gender biased person in the group?

After a day of soul searching I asked them how they had each done the test – “oh I went slow enough not to make any mistakes”- was the reply. Finally I could breathe out, of course going slowly means we have time to engage our conscious minds, which of course know the “right” answers. To answer with the unconscious mind requires a fast automatic response to the questions. Do please take the test (quickly) I’d love to hear how you get on!

Unconscious bias explains why even with longed for flexible working policies many avoid taking advantage of them, since those that do are often regarded as less committed, less valuable or less desirable. Importantly we need to refrain from immediately looking for the individuals to blame as such biases can be organisational, and thus take a wider acknowledgement of their existence before change will occur.

In a 2008 study it was found that most Americans have biases against women, but this was found to be not about misogyny but unconscious sexism, with a mismatch between stereotypical leadership traits and the expectation that women are warm and friendly.

The big challenge is that even if we get this topic at a conscious level it will have very little effect on our unconscious programing unless we really engage in self-awareness, introspection and radical honesty about our own shortcomings. Sarah finished by saying it is not only our duty to recognise our own biases but also call out those we see around us.

One thing is certain, unless we keep reminding ourselves of our own biases we will go back to sleep on this issue, so thank you Sarah for the excellent reminder to stay awake.