Chances are all of us are harboring some kind of bias or prejudice we know nothing about and that our conscious selves would be shocked to discover and quick to deny.
Yet, this unconscious or implicit bias is an inescapable part of brain function – it’s simply the way we’re wired. Our grey matter is constantly bombarded by vast amounts of information. To lower the cognitive load, our brains automatically try to spot patterns and categorize information, leaving only the important, salient stuff for us to deal with consciously.
It’s the brain’s way of taking a short-cut so that we can quickly make decisions without getting bogged down with repetitive detail. But it means we make assumptions about people or situations based on our previous experience – our responses are the sum total of everything we’ve been exposed to over our lives.
Such biases can and do have a huge impact on every aspect of the workplace from recruitment, promotion, salaries and culture and cause us to unwittingly make decisions favouring one group over another.
Various studies have found, for example, that you’re more likely to be a male ceo if you’re tall; that blond women are paid 7% higher on average than brunettes, or redheads, and that mature-faced people have a career advantage over baby-faced individuals.
As Kristen Pressner, global head of human resources for pharmaceuticals and diagnostics firm, Roche Diagnostics, explains:
The thing about unconscious bias that makes it so hard is the fact that it’s unconscious. I thought I’d got it in my head, but it wasn’t until I had this lightning bolt moment personally, that I really got it.
Pressner’s lightning bolt moment came when she realised that she’d treated similar pay review requests made by a male and a female member of her team very differently, reacting less favorably towards the woman leader.
She realised that at some unconscious level, she was falling foul of the stereotype of seeing men as providers and therefore needing their salary to look after family. Yet, in her own family, it was Pressner who was breadwinner, while her husband stayed home and looked after their four kids. If anyone should have been sympathetic to a woman leader (and she’d hired and promoted many women leaders in her time), it should have been her.
It was a total revelation to discover that she had been biased basically against women like herself:
The thing that was shocking to me was I found myself displaying a bias that was contrary to literally everything I stood for.
I caught myself having a bias that men are providers and women aren’t, but what’s shocking for me is that it’s now been 18 years where I’ve been the sole provider for my home and that’s not enough to overcome the cumulative effect of everything I’ve been exposed to over my life.
It’s a great example of just how deep unconscious bias runs in all of us and how we all need to check ourselves and our reactions. It’s an area that is taken very seriously at Roche Diagnostics, says Pressner:
Roche is an organization that we've very much built around innovation and doing the right thing for patients and we cannot innovate in this space when we’re holding back the potential of some of our people.
And, as Pressner’s own self-revelation proves, our conditioning is not easily overturned. But you can’t change what you don’t know about, so raising awareness and providing unconscious bias training is an obvious place to start making improvements. Pressner’s own TedX talk on YouTube, where she talks about her lightbulb moment, is a great introduction to the subject, but clearly more in-depth training is needed.
But this needs to be thought about carefully. There’s some evidence that unconscious bias training can actually have the opposite effect if it’s not carried out sensitively. There’s a danger, notes Pressner, that some training will just make people feel bad about themselves rather than make them feel positive towards making changes.
Instead, people need to be put into “discovery mode” where their curiosity is peaked and they are open to new ideas. For this reason she’s keen on a softly-softly approach to training:
What I’ve found is that if you send everyone to unconscious bias training all you do is find that everyone hates it. If you find a way to get interest from a number of people and get people talking about this it kinda takes on a life of its own. I always prefer ‘pull’ versus ‘push’.”
There are also some simple every-day actions that can really help build momentum in understanding. One of the most useful, says Pressner, is the ‘flip it and test it’ technique. Simply mentally flip or swap the person in any given scenario with his or her opposite and see if it sounds weird. Pressner gives an example:
Often organizations want to share that they are taking diversity very seriously and have some sort of goal and say ‘we aspire to have 30% of women in leadership roles’. If you flip it to test it, it would say: ‘we aspire to have 70% men in leadership roles’ – it’s really illuminating.
It’s a quick and easy way for everyone in the company to check themselves and their decisions and to ensure that the workforce it hires and promotes is as diverse as possible. Pressner says:
'Flip it to test it' is well known vernacular in Roche. It’s become a very much a part of how we talk in the organization and it really works.
We all need to rewire our brains. So the more images and examples of people that break the stereotypes – women astronauts, male homemakers – that are out there, the better able we will be to rewrite those patterns we’ve spent a lifetime ingesting.
From a personal and a corporate level, it’s vital that we acknowledge and try to root out bias to create as inclusive and diverse a workforce as possible.
There’s so much in the press about conscious bias with the #MeToo and Times Up campaigns, for example, so the climate seems right for unconscious bias to get the reception it needs.