Unconscious Bias

30 April 2017 By Will Brodie

Image credit: Diversity Australia
Image credit: Diversity Australia

In the modern workplace, nurturing diversity improves adaptability, customer service, innovation and employee loyalty. It is profitable. Diversity is a pragmatic choice. 

But our decisions are subject to unconscious bias; prejudices we don’t know we have. Without being aware of it, we judge people by age, weight, skin colour, gender, educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title. We limit diversity.

It doesn’t mean we’re heinous. Careers experts Mindtools contend that our brains are “hardwired” to make unconscious decisions, “because the number of choices we face every day would be overwhelming if we had to consciously evaluate every single one”.

Previous diversity training has been ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst, sometimes leading to a backlash against under-represented groups.

So how do we tackle unconscious bias today?

1. Take the Implicit Association Test

This proven social psychology test measures unconscious associations between types of people and concepts or ideas. It exposes your underlying assumptions. The creators of the test, pioneers in the field, wrote the book Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People. Experiencing one’s own bias is more impactful than being told about it. As diversity expert Howard J. Ross points out, "It's not just men but women too who have ingrained expectations of workplace roles."

2. Anonymous recruitment

Remove identifying details – gender and name - from job applications. When short film festival Tropfest introduced anonymous judging of entries, the proportion of female finalists shot up from 5 per cent to 50 per cent. The same change occurred when auditions for Philharmonic Orchestras were conducted behind a screen. The practice is now being trialled by many organisations including the Victorian Government. 

3. There’s an app for that

There’s a boom in software that claims to help identify or eradicate bias. Many of these programs are so new they have not yet have been proven in the field, but they are being snapped up by American businesses.

Entelo recruitment software is used by companies such as Tesla to make more educated guesses about potential employees.

Headstart, an applicant matching app, uses algorithms, psychometrics and an analysis of mutual needs. It aims to eradicate bias based on which school the applicant attended. Optional features allow employers to prioritise applications from under-represented groups.

Textio helps you word job posts so you attract the right potential candidates.

Unitive aims to streamline “five essential hiring practices”, including blind resume reviews.

4. Act it out

Advertising agency Dentsu Aegis Network employs actors to recreate stories of workplace bias encountered in their workplace. Employees watch, discuss, and then rewrite the scenarios with better outcomes. This engagement gets people to see the consequences of their bias.

The follow-up includes teaching employees "decision-making disciplines called “bias interrupters”. 

This aims to counter the brain’s "tendency to fall back on the known and familiar when making choices."

Confronting unconscious bias is a new field, and most of its methods await vindication. Awareness alone does not create change. And no single training seminar or software implementation affects ingrained bias. 

Leaders must have an ongoing commitment to countering bias, and a willingness to try whatever it takes.