Debunking bias: understanding yours and how to correct it
How often have you made judgements based on someone’s gender, track record, age, body size or cultural background?
Frequently? Sometimes? Never?
The truth is, we all make judgments, and we can often make them so quickly, we barely realise we’ve done so. It’s known as unconscious bias.
Contrary to what you might think, this bias doesn’t make you a bad person – it’s all part of being human.
What makes biases “bad” is a) a lack of awareness around how they influence your decisions, and b) how they impact others.
Here’s the thing:
Although unconscious biases are unavoidable, they can negatively affect the workplace when we act on them to someone’s disadvantage, or use them to make unfair or unethical decisions. Such impacts can lead to discrimination and bring down team morale, prevent innovation, and ultimately drive away great employees.
The more you understand your biases, the easier it is to take action and address them.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias describes situations where our background, personal experiences and other societal factors can impact our decisions and actions without us realising.
Think of it as an unintended people preference.
From an evolutionary perspective, another way of looking at unconscious bias is as a thinking shortcut.
As humans, we need to make decisions, and our brains are wired to fill in the blanks to help make these decisions.
So, we fill in the blanks with what we know from past experience – our unconscious bias.
Types of bias
There are lots of different types of bias.
Here are just a few of the commons ones to be aware of:
Neuroscience research has demonstrated that human beings are hardwired to prefer those who resemble us or show similar features – in other words, those we have an affinity with.
For example, managers are more likely to hire people who look similar or who have similar sounding names to them.
There’s even research to prove it:
Researchers in the UK sent out fake CVs and cover letters for 3,200 positions. Despite demonstrating the same qualifications and experience, the “applicants” with common Pakistani or Nigerian names needed to send out 60% more applications than applicants with more stereotypically British names to receive the same number of callbacks.
One of the most well-known forms of unconscious bias is based on gender.
An example of this bias is if the recruitment panel favours male candidates over females even though they have similar skills and job experience.
The gender bias may also reduce career advancement opportunities for females, and means they get paid a lower salary for the same level jobs – as of 2021, the average median salary for men is about 18% higher than women’s.
The unconscious bias can creep into performance reviews too:
One study shows how women are more likely to be called out for being “abrasive” or “bossy” when the same qualities are praised as “assertive” or “confident” in men.
Age bias is where you stereotype or discriminate against others based on their age.
It’s most common against older team members – for example, an older team member might be passed over for a promotion, which ends up going to a younger team member with less experience.
But age bias can also work against younger employees. In a poll by Fast Company, 36% of younger millennials and Gen Z say they’ve faced workplace ageism, often due to a perceived lack of experience.
People’s experiences in Australian workplaces are also shaped by racial bias.
In a study of Indigenous employees, 38% reported being treated unfairly because of their Indigenous background sometimes, often or all of the time.
The same study showed that Indigenous women experience more pronounced barriers in the labour market, are in more precarious employment, and face a greater pay gap compared to Indigenous men and non-Indigenous women
And one in four culturally diverse women reported cultural barriers in the workplace had caused them to scale back at work.
How to outsmart your unconscious bias
If no one is immune to bias, what can you do?
The first step is to recognise it. This is a complex task, and it might take a while to really understand your bias.
Start by asking yourself:
- What biases might I have?
- What impact does this have on my colleagues and in the workplace?
- What will I do about this?
You might notice patterns in your bias, based on your past experiences. One way to work out where your unconscious bias lies is to consider who you trust and why you trust them.
If you identify that you have a negative bias, make a conscious effort to learn more about that individual or group to understand how and why it makes you judge them in a certain way.
If you’re working with global colleagues or clients, be proactive about understanding their cultures.
Broaden your viewpoint
When making important decisions, invite others who can broaden your viewpoint and balance any hidden biases. List two or three people in the workplace and outside of the workplace who you would go to if you had an issue to discuss. Then categorise those people in terms of education, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity and so on. You might realise that your “unofficial advisory board” very much looks like you, and therefore probably thinks like you.
Now, challenge yourself to seek out the perspective of someone different from yourself, even if that just means grabbing a coffee with someone you don’t usually talk to in the workplace.
Have you noticed a co-worker makes decisions with potential bias? Maybe they always exclude someone from the conversation in meetings? Or perhaps they make judgements about people’s skills based on gender or age?
Start a constructive conversation with them and try to identify any possible biases in their decision.
Be conscious of your unconscious biases
We all have bias to some extent, but the important part is how you are aware of it and take action to address it. Don’t be that person excluding others in meetings or making assumptions about what people can or cannot do based on their age, gender or appearance. Take steps to recognise your unconscious actions, question them, and don’t let them hold you or others back.
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