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Do we still need to think about our unconscious bias during Covid-19?

Aseia Rafique, Diversity & Inclusion Manager with the SRA shares some thoughts about unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias, what does it mean, and why are we still talking about it? Known as implicit bias in America, the term has been around for over 20 years. It refers to a bias we are unaware of which influences the brain when it makes quick judgments and assessments about people and situations. Unconscious bias is influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.

What people sometimes forget or do not wish to think about is that we all have biases. The current focus on unconscious bias is about understanding what these biases are and what we can do to change our behaviour in situations where they rear their ugly head.

Of course, people may naturally tend to favour others who look like them or share their values. They may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area, or who is the same colour or ethnicity as they are. These are things we have in common with each other and things we can relate to. I recognise this in myself because I feel an affinity with women I meet who are from a traditional South Asian background. For me it is a reminder of all those times when I was a teenager and desperate to wear skinny jeans!

Most of us believe we are unbiased, rational, objective, and good decision makers. However, unconscious bias can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion, and performance management. This could also be discriminatory if the unconscious bias relates to a protected characteristic and may be a reason why women, despite having been recruited at the trainee-level at 50% for 20 years, make up only a third of partners in law firms (that number falls to an estimated 15% for female equity partners); and why there are still more men named John (17) leading the UK’s biggest companies than all women (7).

We know the human brain is constantly forced to make rapid decisions about situations and people and to help it along it has developed a type of shorthand to quickly arrive at judgments. What we do not think about are the cultural and social pressures which add to our biases, colouring our perception even when we think we are being impartial. There are lots of examples of this such as “a disabled person would never be able to handle the pressure of working in the high-pressured environment of commercial contracts” or “women have more empathy – they are really good in family law”. But we all should recognise that people are not homogenous groups – we are all different and bring with us a range of skills and abilities. It is unfair to limit opportunity and choice for others because of our biases about them. For example, how often have we heard that people working part-time are not fully invested in their job or those that leave at five pm on the dot are not pulling their weight.

And then we think we are being inclusive and positively stereotype people by praising them for an aptitude linked to their background or cultural heritage. We all ‘know’ Chinese people are good at maths or that black people are just naturally good at sports?

If it makes us feel uncomfortable interrogating our own biases, then thinking about how we have benefited from certain ‘privileges’ can make us even more hot under the collar. No one likes to believe they have been given a leg up in life. But in truth, whether it is by being white, or straight, or even just able to read, most of us have. If you are old enough to have bought a house, or to have got a university degree for free, you have experienced privilege. Failure to check privilege can lead to unconscious bias and biased decision making. Franchesca Ramsey explains it very well. She says “a lot of people get hung up on the word privilege. Privilege does not mean that you are rich, that you’ve had an easy life, that everything’s been handed to you, and you’ve never had to struggle or work hard. All it means is that there are some things in life that you will not experience, or ever have to think about, just because of who you are”. It is easy to get it wrong, which is why we need to take a step back and think about the diversity of experience different people bring. For example, when YouTube first launched their video upload feature, five to ten percent of videos were uploaded upside-down. What happened there? Well, with the help of unconscious bias, Google had created an app that worked best for right-handed users.

People who are privileged by the system – who benefit from structural inequality – are less likely to notice or be bothered by it. So, what can we do? Unconscious bias holds us back, and ‘de-biasing’ people’s minds has proven to be difficult and expensive. Behavioural design may be the answer and instead of focusing on individuals, we should perhaps focus on de-biasing our organisations. We can change the way we approach things, such as the way we recruit or allocate work, for example. We have technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to help us do this – but remember to take the bias out of your AI too! PwC recently implemented AI into their systems which tracked demand and capacity across their business to help distribute work.

We have all benefited from the systems and processes put in place to support us - whether that is through access to a university education, the ability to buy a house or helping us to achieve our career goals. Our ability to move forward is supported by a complex co-creation of systems and policies by people – lots of people – and to think we ‘make it’ solely by virtue of individual effort and hard work is a misconception. Let’s think about unconscious bias and how we can shift that needle to provide opportunities and choices to help people achieve their best potential and be the person they want to be. We may be working from home but we still need to think about what our biases are and what we can do about them.



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