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Think you don’t judge? Think again!

Jun 28, 2018


The Long Read: We're all unconscoiously biased to some extent. The key is how you overcome it

You're biased. You may not think you are. You probably (hopefully!) don't want to be. But you are. Everyone is. Science says so! If you don’t believe us, take Harvard's implicit bias test. We'll wait.

To be biased is part of being human. And it doesn't have to lead to discrimination. What counts is how you notice and respond to your biases.


The science of unconscious bias


Implicit bias studies use all kinds of tricksy ways to unearth people's unconscious biases. And they come up with shockingly high numbers: 90% of Western people who took part in one study, for example, had negative associations around the word 'elderly'.

And this isn't just abstract word association. A 2004 study concluded that unconscious bias has serious consequences in the real world. It affects people's judgements of and behaviour towards 'Outgroups' (i.e. those on the wrong side of the bias).

To drive the point home in a small business context, check out this study: in 2016, submission and acceptance rates at Github (an open source software development platform) were scrutinised. Contributions from women tended to be accepted more often than contributions from men. This surprised the researchers.

So they looked a little deeper. It turned out that the pro-women results only happened when the coders were not identifiable as women. When the gender of the coders was more obvious, the acceptance rate for women dropped by a whole 10%.

Nobody at Github thought of themselves as sexist. Nobody at Github wanted to discriminate against female coders. But that kind of result is no coincidence. The problem was not conscious discrimination. The problem was unconscious bias.

Naming the beast

So far, so doom and gloom. But bear with us - there's hope yet! That 2004 study we mentioned earlier also said that "the path from implicit bias to discriminatory action is not inevitable". Bias doesn't have to lead to discrimination. People can break that process, and they can do it pretty easily. How? Simply by becoming aware of their own bias.

Ancient British tribes used to think that knowing something's name gave you power over it. That kind of hocus pocus probably won’t work with your disobedient cat, however spookily you chant its name. But it will work with unconscious bias. Naming – identifying – your bias brings it under your control. You have the power to decide what to do with it.

If you consciously decide to follow your bias and carry on discriminating, you're stepping out of the realm of unconscious bias and into the realms of 'ism' (racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, depending on the bias). This is where passive bias becomes active prejudice.

If, on the other hand, you decide to defeat your bias, you have a lot more control over your behaviour around your 'outgroups'. You can become that equal opportunities, generous-spirited person you want to be (and probably thought you were!)


The Bias Blind Spot


Easy peasy, right? Well, maybe not. Identifying bias can be hard. It takes a seriously self-aware person to look deep within themselves and pull out their psychological nasties by the roots. Most of us have a healthy level of self-delusion. Researchers have even proven the existence of a Bias Blind Spot. Everyone thinks that they're less biased than everyone else. Nobody has any real idea how biased they are.

This is why unconscious bias training is really important.

There's no one size fits all in unconscious bias training. Most trainers will explain what unconscious bias is, and where it might appear. Some focus on getting rid of opportunities for it to rear its ugly face. Others work more intensively, in small groups, teasing out and burning through bias (it can be pretty tough, but cathartic!).

Whatever approach works best for you, it is seriously important to defeat unconscious bias in your workplace. It's the only way to make sure that you're treating everyone the way that they genuinely deserve, and it's the only way to be sure that you aren't losing out on great human resources!


Equalising the workplace


Making people aware of unconscious bias isn't the whole story though, as there are other active steps you can take to thwart it. These can include:

  • Anonymising CVs
  • Reworking and restructuring interview procedures
  • Reworking job descriptions to make them fit a more equal profile
  • Using work sample tests – these show a candidate's actual aptitude for the role they'll be doing, and can have very different results to interviews
  • Set diversity goals

Unconscious bias is a 'mind bug' we're all plagued with. But it can be defeated. Good luck!