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We’re All Biased. And That’s a Fact.

Written for Ulster Bank's Small Business Can / Business Achievers Forum

Queue lots of you reading this to recoil and say ‘No I am NOT!’. I’ve got news for you folks, we all are.

Much is being made of the role of unconscious bias training, in the wake of, well – a lot of narratives – decrying the lack of diversity and particularly gender equality. Of course, this isn’t new news, but rather an ongoing recognition of age-old norms and accepted cultural stereotypes – which no one person is responsible for, but rather is the result of layers of bias, combined, over time.

About two years ago, I was invited to create a pilot programme on Unconscious Gender Bias. While I and my colleague researched the various themes associated with the topic – something struck me. I’d been involved, both voluntarily and professionally for over ten years, in numerous programmes, networks and projects to increase women’s visibility and participation in business, politics, entrepreneurship and a swathe of other domains. While I could attest to the rationale and thought put into each endeavour, I did wonder if there wasn’t something more foundational about the lack of female representation in many of these sectors.

In fact, during the research, I uncovered archived blogs I’d penned – calling out the (remember this beaut?) “binders full of women” highlighted during a recent US Presidential campaign. There may be binders, said I, but what if they’re festering on a dusty shelf rather than being actively considered in the appointment process?

And therein lies the nub of the problem.

So, yes, we’re all biased – how do I know this? Because I am. Because there’s myriad of research, to show we are. Why? Because functionally, we’re not able to process everything that happens around us, or is demanded of us on a daily basis.

Consider this: the average person processes up to 30,000 thoughts in a day. We are surrounded by millions of bits of information. Dwell, if you will, for a moment on how you would get through the day efficiently if you had to give the same conscious mental processing time to doing routine activities you’ve undertaken since you were a child – brushing your teeth, getting dressed, crossing a road (you get the picture!). If these actions were engaged with as for the first time, without utilising the filtering and pattern identification data amassed from experience – we’d struggle to function as we need to.

So, why should our unconscious matter when it comes to diversity and gender equality? Simply, much in the same way we assess and identify patterns to help us process information effectively – we also apply a similar function to other decisions.

In seconds, we filter and file people according to a whole range of assigned stereotypes and implicit associations. These filters are informed by so many experiences in life, assimilated gradually and shaped by our culture, education and socioeconomic background – not to mention the people who influence us. In effect, often, we are simply applying filters that have unconsciously become attuned to and established without active conscious engagement. As you can probably tell, this filtering process also means we can make decisions without being aware of the unconscious bias we’re applying to people, their skills and abilities – and regularly, these decisions can be wrong.

In accepting that we all have biases, however, we can both disrupt and challenge our thinking (and that of our colleagues) – in fact, this is one of the most fundamental and important steps in the process. For starters, taking any of the Harvard Implicit Association Tests, can really help open our eyes to the programme running unconsciously, making decisions for us.

Regrettably, unconscious bias training alone does not create lasting behavioural change – and can in fact facilitate ‘moral licensing’, where biased decision-making continues and is actively validated – as undertaking the training suggests to individuals that they are now ‘no longer biased’.

What does work, I hear you ask? Applying a diversity lens to all our organisation’s policies – starting with our strategic plans – and ensuring it’s championed, safeguarded and monitored by leadership and management. Put simply, without the consistent focus and priority it needs, a diversity strategy to tackle unconscious bias may fall victim to lack of buy-in or commitment – serving only as compliance, and not excellence.

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