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Why are we still talking about bias?

This is a transcript of a townhall conversation from 2022, between Felicity Menzies. CEO Diversity & Inclusion Consultant at Include-Empower (Sydney, Australia) and the leader of a

client organisation.

Leader

For some years, bias has been discussed as one of the main impediments to achieving workplace equality. With all this attention given to bias, why are we still talking about it?

Felicity

Ah! That’s a great opening question. The short answer is that eliminating bias requires action as well as awareness raising, and not all employers and organisational members ‘walk the talk’. Although many employers have been proactive in raising awareness of bias and its role in workplace inequality, in reality, eliminating bias requires the focused attention and effort of everyone in the organisation, every day. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, there’s a disconnect between intention and action. Sometimes, this gap can be attributed to a lack of engagement in diversity and inclusion initiatives, but it’s also the result of people not knowing how to ‘walk the talk’ in a practical sense in their decision-making and everyday interactions and a lack of accountability for change efforts.

Leader

On that note, I’m keen to understand from you how to close the gap between intention and action. Still, before we turn our focus to actions, I thought a quick refresher on bias could be helpful for our audience—what is bias, where does it come from, and what implications does it have for workplaces?

Felicity

Bias gets a bad rap, but it’s not inherently bad. Bias is our understanding of the world based on previous experiences. As we move through the world, our brain records repetitions of our experiences. These patterns are stored automatically as unconscious mental and behavioural scripts that form our understanding of the world and guide our future responses.

For example, when we are invited to a meeting, we instinctively know what to expect and how to prepare and behave at the meeting because we’ve stored our previous experiences of meetings as a mental representation in our minds. This mental map is activated automatically, without conscious thought, freeing up mental capacity to focus on other tasks. Without this mental map, we wouldn’t know what to expect and how to prepare for and behave in a meeting and would have to do some homework. While figuring this out, we would have less time to spend on other tasks.

But although bias is beneficial in that it enables us to process and respond to our worlds more efficiently, it can be problematic when our future responses require us to do something different to what we’ve done in the past.

Leader

Can you share an example?

Felicity

Absolutely. Consider occupational roles and the patterns of traits that have traditionally been associated with different roles. For example, can you visualise a pilot, a teacher, and a taxi driver? What do you notice about the characteristics and traits you have imagined?

Leader

Very traditional role stereotypes. I visualised a white male pilot. The teacher was female. The taxi driver was male with an ethnic background different to my own.

Felicity

Most people report similar responses. But whether our visualisations are stereotypical or not, when prompted, we all visualise someone—usually individuals who are quite different from one another—for each role. You would have noted that you did this instantaneously and automatically and that your visualisations align with your past experiences. Because your usual experience of a pilot has been a white male, this association is stored as an unconscious mental map in your mind. It is activated automatically when you think of pilots.

These automatic prejudgements can have significant implications for workforce diversity. Studies show that individuals with characteristics that align with a traditional role stereotype are rated more favourably than individuals with traits and characteristics that do not align with conventional stereotypes. In one study, staff in a science faculty rated male applicants for a lab manager as more competent than equally qualified female candidates and chose a higher starting salary for male candidates. In another study, despite no expressed difference in experience, education or interpersonal skills, participants ranked an Asian American male at a higher level of technical competency but lower for leadership potential than a Caucasian American male.

Leader

So, when assessing a candidate for a role, our assessments are influenced unconsciously by the degree to which a candidate resembles people who have traditionally held that role?

Felicity

Yes, that’s correct. This is why, in the absence of deliberate interventions to improve the objectivity of our decision-making, it’s so hard to shift the dial on diversity across rank and function.

However, role-trait associations are not the only biases influencing our assessments of others. We also develop unconscious, automatic biases from repeated exposure to negative portrayals of different social and cultural groups in media and social discourse. These negative stereotypes also have significant implications for workforce diversity. Studies show that members of racial and ethnic minority groups, for example, are held to higher standards of performance—they are penalised more harshly for their mistakes, are assessed as less competent, and are less likely to be recommended for management positions compared to equally qualified candidates from the culturally dominant group. Negative portrayals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disabilities, and the LGBTIQ community similarly shape many unconscious prejudgements we hold about individuals from these groups.

On this point, it’s vital to remember when talking about breaking gender bias in the workplace that women are recognised as not being a homogenous group. Women face different layers of bias because of the intersection of their gender and race, ethnicity, language, accent, disability, sexual orientation, and age, among other attributes. For example, in 2018, a study by Diversity Council Australia reported that while 88% of culturally diverse women plan to advance to a very senior role, only 10% strongly agree that their leadership traits are recognised or that their opinions are valued and respected.

Leader

That’s a really useful point, Felicity, that if we want to achieve gender balance, we need to consider not just gender bias, per se, but the varying and unique experiences of bias that different women face because of the intersection of their identities.

Felicity

Yes, exactly. The existence of biases beyond gender means that our workplaces are not a level playing field for men, and breaking bias benefits men and women.

Leader

So, if I am to sum up what we’ve learned so far, bias is the predetermined ideas or prejudgements we hold based on our past experiences—whether these are direct experiences or indirect through mass media and social discourse.

Felicity

Yes, that’s right. We don’t see the world as it is but as we are. These cognitive shortcuts are designed to help us to process our social environments efficiently and free up mental capacity for other tasks. Still, because the patterns in our environment that inform our mental maps reflect outdated and invalid ideas about capabilities, role fit, value and worth, these hidden associations can cause us to treat people unfairly even when we intend to be fair and inclusive.

What’s important to note is that bias formation is automatic and involuntary. We don’t have a choice over whether or not we store biased mental scripts. We may reject the traditional notion that mothers are primary caregivers and endorse shared parenting, for example. Still, when our experiences, direct and indirect, repeatedly associate mothers with the primary caregiver role, that association will be automated in our minds and can influence our responses in ways we are unaware of and likely would deny. The association of mothers with primary caregivers might cause us to unconsciously assume mothers are less committed to their work, can devote this effort or attention to their job, will want to work part-time, are less ambitious, or are less interested in travelling or taking on increased responsibilities. These hidden beliefs can, in turn, unconsciously influence selection decisions, performance appraisals, development opportunities, and compensation. In one study, women with children were 50 per cent less likely to get a response from an employer. Men with children were slightly more likely than any other applicant to get a callback. Mothers were offered salaries of around $11,000 less than women without children. Fathers were offered salaries of around $2,000 more than men without children. Conversely, it's often easier for mothers to access flexible working arrangements than fathers.

Leaders

Felicity, what about the influence of bias in everyday workplace interactions outside of formal decision-making? In what other ways does bias show up at work?

Felicity

That’s a great question because bias in everyday workplace interactions can be as significant for workplace inequality as bias in formal decision-making. For example, studies show that men (and other women) interrupt women in professional settings more often than they interrupt other men. In one study, men interrupted women 33% more often than other men. As a result, women’s voices and ideas are much less likely to be heard and valued, with negative implications for innovation and the quality of decision-making, but also for the visibility, assessments of competency, and career progression of women.

Women are also more likely to be asked or expected to do ‘office housework’ than men. Office housework refers to administrative or menial tasks or assignments that don’t improve one’s chances of success in the organisation. Examples include taking the coffee order, cleaning up after meetings; taking meeting notes; scheduling appointments; procuring a meeting room; planning social activities; buying group gifts. Office housework can be contrasted with glamour work—stretch assignments that develop new skills and increase upward visibility, and therefore promotion success. Examples of glamour work include working on a project for a significant client, building a new team or business, and representing the company by speaking at industry events. These assignments are more often assigned to men, which gives them an edge in their career progression.

Leader

Felicity, it’s clear to me how bias in formal decision-making can undermine diversity efforts by causing us to prefer some candidates over others irrespective of performance and capability, but taking a step back, why are workforce diversity and breaking bias desirable goals?

Felicity

Concerning the drivers for workforce diversity, a large body of research shows that diversity drives better organisational outcomes through increased innovation, a richer pool of talent, and an enhanced capacity to deliver products that meet the needs of a broader customer base and drive market growth. But breaking bias also has a profound impact on individuals. When employees feel respected and valued, are empowered to contribute fully, and can achieve their full potential, they experience higher levels of wellbeing, satisfaction, and engagement, which supports individual performance and productivity.

Leader

Given that bias is, as you’ve described, an automatic and involuntary process, is breaking bias achievable?

Felicity

Yes! The good news is that although bias is inevitable, acting on our bias isn’t. Researchers have shown that if we slow down our responses and act with a conscious intention to be fair and inclusive, we can outsmart and override our biases.

Leader

What are some practical examples of how we can do this?

Felicity

Consider, first, decision-making. To make fair performance assessments, we need to be conscious and deliberate about assessing performance against objective measures. If we don’t, our brains will outsource this process to automatic processes, and our biases will drive our assessments.

To share an example, when I was living in Asia, a friend, who worked for an American Bank, mentioned to me in passing that he was thinking about putting forward for promotion an Indonesian woman who ran his business in Indonesia, but that he was concerned his application would be knocked back because she wasn’t 'confident' enough. To help my friend work through his bias, I asked why he thought his Indonesian leader deserved a promotion. He replied that her performance was brilliant – she was ahead of budget, had strong engagement scores, and had high client satisfaction ratings. So, then I asked him why he felt she needed to be confident. Through that line of questioning, he realised that he had unconsciously compared her to traditional leader stereotypes in the bank. In a Western sense, confidence was assumed to be related to leadership performance because the bank’s American male leaders regularly exhibited it. Still, when scrutinised against objective performance measures, it didn’t stand up as a valid measure. Unless we consciously specify objective criteria against which to assess performance, our brains have nothing to anchor our decision-making on other than our unconscious biases and stereotypes.

Leader

What about breaking bias in everyday interactions? For example, earlier, you shared that women are interrupted more than men.

Felicity

Yes, the same principles apply to everyday interactions. Slow down, monitor your responses, and deliberately include. Our biases are so deeply embedded and hidden from us that if we are not consciously including, we are most likely unconsciously excluding.

In meetings, be mindful of how you respond to the ideas and contributions of different team members, and deliberately seek out and create space for quieter and minority voices. This is important not only because our social biases can cause us to devalue some voices unconsciously. When we have a predetermined idea, we tend to pay more attention to, actively seek out, and favour information and ideas that support our thinking. This can cause us to more readily criticise, dismiss, or reject the ideas and contributions of people who have ideas different from ours.

You should also reflect on and be mindful of whom you spend time with. How diverse are your social and professional networks? Who are your ‘go-to’ people? Whose opinions do you seek out? Who do you spend most time coaching, mentoring or supporting at work? Whom do you invite into your social circle? Unless we are deliberate in seeking out diversity, we can find ourselves being drawn more readily to people and ideas that are familiar to us.

Leader

What about if we see bias in someone else? Given that we all have bias, is it okay to call someone else out on their bias?

Felicity

Yes! Our social conditioning is so deeply ingrained and automatic that it’s challenging for us to see our biases. It’s also difficult for us to understand the experiences of others if we haven’t walked in their shoes. So, I would argue it’s not just okay, but essential if we are committed to fostering an inclusive workplace, that we help our colleagues to see their biases and,similarly, that we welcome feedback on our biases. I prefer to use the term call-in rather than call-out to remind us that we don’t want to exacerbate divisions through shaming or reprimanding people for harm caused that is not intentional. People tend to judge themselves on their intentions and expect others to do the same. This can cause people to double down or go on the counterattack when receiving feedback on their biases.

Calling in, in contrast to calling out, can minimise the risk of backlash. Calling in involves acknowledging benign intent but helping the individual to understand the impact of their behaviour or comment. Your end goal is learning and behavioural change. Keeping this in mind can help you to respond to bias in others productively. Helpful tips are to avoid accusations of racism and sexism; correct the behaviour, not the person; use the teachable moment to educate. One approach that’s very effective is asking questions to help people uncover their biases for themselves, similar to how I questioned my husband on why confidence was relevant for assessing the performance of his Indonesian leader. Questions like ‘can you explain what you mean by that?’ and ‘can you share an example?’ can be very helpful.

And, of course, if you receive feedback that you’ve made someone feel uncomfortable, understand that rejecting or dismissing the feedback is harmful. It’s okay to acknowledge that your intention wasn’t to harm, but if you dismiss or deny an individual’s lived experience, you invalidate a person’s experiences and amplify the harm done. Ask, ‘what can I learn here?’ not ‘how can I defend myself?’

Leader

Thanks so much for your time today, Felicity. You’ve given us a lot to think about, but more importantly, you’ve shared some practical actions we can take to break bias in our everyday interactions.

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