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Unconscious Bias... at Work

Unconscious bias. Two words. Unconscious. Bias.

What do you think when you hear these two words? Is it something we can control? Something we're cognisant of? Or something pre-programmed, hard-wired and deeply embedded?

In the immediate period following a stint working with the NWCI on a pilot Unconscious Gender Bias programme - I found myself being ever-so aware of all the biases I have and those I hear around me every day.

Suffice to say, I've turned into one of those types who, having experienced or achieved something significant (a massive dietary attitudinal shift or cessation of a bad habit), is sharing the benefits with everyone. Indeed, much to their, erm, enjoyment, I now find myself evangelising family and friends to the many and varied biases in daily life.

The thing is, at every moment, unconsciously, we are making decisions about, well, everything. Whether we need to eat, whether we're tired, whether we want to watch something on TV, whether that car might pull out in front of us... or whether that person should have that job, whether what they're wearing is appropriate, whether they're agressive or assertive or bossy. Depending on how we've been socialised from an early age and the value system engrained in us - we will also find ourselves making decisions about someone in terms of their ability, attributes and traits - without ever having had the proof or information to make such a decision.

Now, this is the point where most people tend to either agree wholeheartedly or get very annoyed. You see, we all feel stating this fact is in some way making us bad people. And to be fair, it doesn't bathe us in glory - but the reality is - we all do it. Whether the impact of our unconscious bias is manifestly to the detriment of another person or not is secondary - what is important is that we become conscious of our unconscious bias.

Many texts on the origins of unconscious bias point to the historical context of bias, at a point in time when our brain's response was rightly attuned to assess danger (the well-known "fight or flight" response) - it should be noted that this was at a time when there was real, substantial threat to be assessed and responded to (e.g. potentially being gored by a large wild animal).

However, in todays' world, similar to prehistoric times, our brain is unconsciously filing and responding to information continually - with far less useful outcomes. Instead of deciding whether we'll be a lion's lunch, we're fast-forwarding to conclusions about someone based on a whole set of prejudgments.

Continuing to talk about the here-and-now, could we consider this conditioned response or unconscious behaviour in terms of the #OscarsSoWhite or #WakingTheFeminists debates? Almost certainly; and subsequent ripostes to both issues have shown just how engrained these attitudes are. There are no female writers out there. This argument is racist to white people.

So, how do we ameliorate such deeply woven behaviours? My experience of working on the aforementioned pilot programme offered some unparalleled clarity - and it's not as complex as you mught expect - but will take time, commitment and leadership.

In the first instance, actually acknowledging and accepting that everyone applies bias - it's human - is crucial. Without that clear engagement and leveling of the pitch, progress is impossible. That is not to say it is acceptable to repeatedly nurture inequality through excusing bias, but simply accepting that it is a reality - and can be changed.

Creating a culture which is conducive to colleagues gently probing or questioning whether an action or decision has been influenced by bias, is also central to undermining it.

But without question, leadership is the ultimate broker and catalyst of real change - without organisations and governments actually inhabiting and living the values they espouse through policies and measures - progress will be slow at best, and ineffectual, at worst.


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