Unconscious Bias… a view from ella Chair Sneha Khilay

By 01/10/2015Chair Blogs

snehaAccording to United Nations, ‘Discriminatory behaviour takes many forms but all involve some form of exclusion or rejection’. Through ongoing research conducted in various parts of the world, it has become increasingly apparent that colleagues make choices which subtlety discriminate in favour of or against certain characteristics in a person or group. These choices are based at an unconscious level, known as Unconscious (Implicit) bias or hidden assumptions. Kings College London describe Unconscious Bias as ‘the biases we have which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences.’

Biases are found in situations where individuals have the power to influence outcomes through their decision and actions. As a result of these unconscious biases, recruitment processes, promotions, allocation of work, performance reviews, and redundancies are not conducted in a fair and consistent manner.  The job/promotion/task is given to a preferred person as opposed to the right person. Creativity is not utilised.

Tackling assumptions and acknowledging attitudes is a powerful agent for change.  The bridge building process/overcoming barriers requires conscientious responsibility to be aware and a willingness to change one’s attitude and organisation’s processes. Acknowledging and addressing unconscious bias is a first step in creating business environments where organisations attract, retain and nurture the right skills irrespective of any differences, visible or not visible.

We all hold biases and prejudices and these are manifested in our behaviours towards certain people who look, act and dress differently from us. We naturally tend to gravitate towards people with whom we feel safe or perceive that they think like us.  These thought patterns, assumptions or biases, built up over time become a perceptual scanning process, filtering out certain aspects and allowing key preferences; all based on perceptions and interpretations.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point asserts that within the first seven seconds of interacting with a stranger, we will make an average of eleven judgements about the person. We will subconsciously continue to gather data to justify and maintain these judgements. Ongoing research has shown that there is bias in work-related situations amongst individuals who have the power to influence outcomes through their decisions and actions.

I recently attended a Board Forum of a public sector organisation which was also attended by two newly appointed members.  I noted with wry interest that the Chair of the Board (a man) introduced the new female Board member with a detailed background about her family; she had three daughters, was a PTA member and attended a book club. In contrast the male Board member’s professional qualifications and professional accomplishments were highlighted.  It was also telling that the Chair even introduced the female member with ‘I would like to welcome the beautiful Jackie* to the Board’.  This type of subtle sexism leaves some observers feeling uncomfortable but not entirely sure about what. However, the real danger lies in it being possible to see the comment as normal and acceptable. Further, the Chair would even argue that he was complimenting Jackie.  I later learned that Jackie had similar professional qualifications and accomplishments to those of her male counterpart; this was not mentioned at the Forum. The bias shown towards Jackie was based on her gender and its associated stereotypes

Every person should be treated as an individual, and by involving colleagues for their skills and experience as opposed to what you think they represent, management can create a fair and inclusive working environment. It can also be helpful to reflect on first impressions of a colleague, as this can evaluate any stereotypes and establish whether there are any damaging effects as a result of your stereotypes. Studies show that unconscious biases, judgements and assumptions can have a lasting negative impact on the person concerned. By proactively taking action to combat these preconceptions both through personal reflection and direct interaction, it is highly likely that strong robust working relations will emerge.

One of my favourite stories where unconscious bias has been dealt with effectively is in the hiring of musicians for orchestra. Historically there was a general unspoken view that certain instruments such as trombone, cello, and drums were considered heavy and masculine. It was assumed that women did not have the capacity or stamina to play them as well as men, they therefore were not appointed to play these instruments in orchestras. In a formalised structure to stop conductors ‘choosing favourites’, screens were placed between the musician and the judging committee so all decisions were based solely on what was played and heard. This meant that there was no implicit bias towards men. The number of female musicians playing in orchestras has increased as a result.

As Malcolm Gladwell states, “the fact that there are now women playing for symphony orchestras is not a trivial change. It matters because it has opened up a world of possibility for a group that had been locked out of opportunity… orchestras now hire better musicians and better musicians mean better music”.

When it comes to business management, “ignorance is bliss” is a mind-set which goes entirely against the grain of inclusivity – lack of awareness is now no longer an excuse. A greater awareness of unconscious bias undoubtedly leads to a more diverse and inclusive culture, made up from a wider, richer pool of talent.


About Snéha Khilay

Snéha is the Managing Director of Blue Tulip Training. She advices Board Members, CEO, Executive Directors, and Senior Managers on how to develop a strategic and operational approach to problem solving, particularly in relation to the changing stance on cultural diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias.

Snéha, an accomplished author, contributes to the London School of Economics Diversity Blog. She has appeared in various management related publications and was recently quoted in The Times and The Independent.

Sneha is also Chair of ella Group 1 which meets in London. For more information on joining Sneha’s group please email sneha@ella-forums.org.