‘Unconscious Bias’ and the journey to an inclusive society

Have you met in-the-face discrimination lately? E.g. Have you been told that you are not made for being a manager because you are a woman? As a coloured man or woman have you heard that you don’t have the “right behaviour” for the job? As a person with a disability, have you been declined an interview because they “can’t hire people like you”? Probably not. Because open discrimination doesn’t happen often anymore – and that’s great!

However…. People might unconsciously think what I just wrote. Unfortunately, there is more and more evidence that shows we are led by stereotyped thinking: we are on autopilot using old images as the driver of our decisions and how we view the world and the people in it.

An example is the “Heidi/Howard study”, quoting from a 2013 Professional Women’s Network (PWN) newsletter:

« In 2003, Harvard Business School ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They chose the case study of Heidi Roizen, a real-life entrepreneur. The case described how Heidi was successful thanks to her outgoing personality and networking abilities. The same story was read by 2 groups of students with one difference: one group was working on Heidi, for the other, her name was changed to Howard. When asked for their thoughts, both groups found Heidi and Howard equally competent, which made sense, their accomplishments were identical. Nevertheless Howard came across as the more appealing colleague, whilst Heidi was seen as « selfish » and « not the person you would like to work for ». The same data with a single difference – gender – created very different impressions ».

This experiment was somewhat repeated at a business school in Norway February 2015, I am sad to say, with the same result. Two groups were asked to review CVs and select the best candidate for a managerial role. They also saw videos of the candidates answering questions. One man/one woman; same CV, same script. The man was selected as the best candidate by the students and seen as a likable guy, the woman quite the contrary.

In 2015, in Norway, the most egalitarian country in the world. Not so great news.

But, the Norwegian students were very embarrassed when they were confronted with their selection and they realised that they were driven by stereotyped thinking about “accepted” male and female behaviour. There is hope that these students will be more conscious leaders.

prettyugly illusionsThe two studies prove that we still have ways to go to become a true non-discriminatory society. It appears that the key is revealing unconscious bias, and this work has been going on for a while, e.g. the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) that was introduced in 1998 (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/aboutus.html). Although the test has some opponents, it is probably the most thorough tool we have to date on checking own unconscious biases towards others.

Ten years ago “unconscious bias” was a new or unfamiliar term, but these days it is considered the solution to progress in the fields of diversity and inclusion. We are on a journey to becoming a society where people feel they have equal worth no matter gender, age, colour, ability, sexual preference, religion and class. And.. we might need some help to open our eyes to own unconscious thinking and behaviour. Becoming aware that there is such a thing as a blind spot in our own minds, is already a first step.


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