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Can we consciously stop unconscious bias?

Can we consciously stop unconscious bias?


We all make choices that discriminate against one group in favour of another. But we can reduce the negative effects to create working environments where such choices are less likely to affect final hiring decisions, writes Sarah Winship

Unconscious bias – we all have it. However consciously unbiased we may try to be, we all make incredibly quick judgements about people and situations without realising we are doing it.

Traditional approaches to diversity have assumed that patterns of discriminatory behaviour are conscious, that people who know better do the right thing and those who don’t cause bias. In reality we are all biased. We all make choices that discriminate against one group in favour of another without even realising we are doing it, and all the time convincing ourselves that we are not biased.

Unconscious bias occurs when our brains use visual, verbal, and behavioural cues to make quick judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realising. These judgements tend to be the result of a complex mix of influences such as our background, our cultural environment, societal stereotypes, and our personal experiences rather than a true assessment of the qualities of the person or situation before us. Dealing with the negative aspects of unconscious bias is a key part of creating an inclusive culture.

While we may have come a long way in addressing inequality and promoting diversity, it is still very easy to make assumptions about people and situations. In a law firm it is not uncommon to assume in the first instance that a legal PA is a woman and, to a slightly lesser extent, that a partner will be a man.

Unconscious bias can have a negative impact on a number of our day-to-day activities in the workplace: recruitment of staff; promotion; work allocation; even the way we plan meetings. It is important therefore that we do something to address it.

How to mitigate against bias?

Acknowledging the existence of unconscious bias and accepting that we are all capable of it is an important first step. Unless we accept that we all do it, we can’t do anything about it. Only when we accept this can we make changes that will have a positive impact on reducing the effects. There are a number of free online tools available that help people identify and understand their personal biases.

One of the best things an employer can do to reduce the impact is to identify those processes where biases might affect the outcome and ensure they have clear policies, procedures, and processes in place that will limit the influence of individuals’ biases.

If we take recruitment as an example, it is completely natural for us to build a rapport with someone with whom we share a common interest, be that the school they went to, where they grew up, the university club they were a member of, etc. With this in mind, at Shoosmiths, all interviews for graduate positions are CV blind. The interviewer doesn’t know where candidates went to school, which university they went to, or what level of qualification they achieved. They have no information prior to the interview that would allow them to form an opinion of the individual.

In removing this information from the outset we are helping to level the playing field for candidates and reducing the risk of unconscious bias affecting the result of their application. In addition, a clear set of criteria against which individuals are measured and assessed removes the likelihood of subjective decisions based on unconscious bias.

On an individual level, there are a number of ways we can try to stop our own biases from influencing the decisions we make. It is important that we give ourselves time and avoid making split-second decisions. When we make decisions quickly there is the chance that our prejudices and stereotypes will influence us.

We can also try to change our perspective. Considering the situation from a different person’s perspective and being open to exploring multiple points of view will mean we are not imposing our own biases on a situation.

When placed in new situations, rather than seeking out people with whom you have an affinity, try to talk to people you don’t feel you have anything in common with. By widening our social network both at work and at home we will create positive encounters with a wide range of people, helping to reduce automatic assumptions.

We will never eradicate unconscious bias. Our brains are hard-wired to categorise, and indeed there are instances when we need it to do so. It helps us to detect danger. For our ancestors, determining between friend and foe would potentially have been life saving. We can, however, try to reduce the negative effects and create working environments where they are less likely to affect decisions.

Sarah Winship is diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing manager at Shoosmiths