Unconscious bias hinders success

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Painting our daughters’ rooms pink, raising a quizzical eyebrow when they express a desire to study A-level physics or gently persuading the black sixth former that she might prefer nursing to studying medicine are, most of us now realise, devastatingly limiting stereotypical attitudes.

Many of our prejudices we are aware of and can take action to mitigate. However, most of us are fully equipped with a wide array of prejudicial views of which we are less well aware. As BAE chairman Sir Roger Carr wrote in The Times: “We must all continue to work against the subtle build-up of unconscious bias as adults.”

With the vast majority of senior executive positions still held by white males, unconscious bias works against the promotion not only of women but also of black people and other ethnic minorities. From a survival standpoint, processing information rapidly about who we considered friend or foe was essential. Now, though, such snap judgements can lead to costly mistakes: people who we feel comfortable with may be selected or promoted ahead of someone more talented by whom we might feel challenged or even threatened. Most of us start to learn our prejudices as toddlers.

These can be reinforced by mass media, which are fond of using stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for describing characters or situations. Interestingly, both the BBC and Sky TV have recently announced voluntary quotas for women and ethnic minorities.
Even people heroically committed to egalitarianism still retain negative prejudices. And research in the US has shown that there is a link between hidden bias and actual behaviours – it is not only top-down unconscious bias that can shape the workforce and leave us with less- competitive organisations.

Women and those from ethnic minorities have also absorbed the idea that they might not be as able as white male peers. They may therefore fail to put themselves forward for more challenging roles, or they may duck a promotion opportunity. And if they are not in the running they cannot be selected – although managers can encourage talented employees to take a chance they might otherwise avoid.

Companies serious about creating the most fair and diverse workforces can now have all their corporate literature screened for unconscious bias. Training programmes are on offer while making sure all appointments and promotions are carried out by a panel rather than a single individual can help to screen out some hidden prejudices.

Angela Peacock, chair of the People Development Team, which specialises in unconscious bias training, says: “It is only inclusion that will get you good business results. It makes good business sense – as well as moral sense – to work on unconscious bias.”

About author

Lisa Buckingham

Lisa Buckingham

Lisa Buckingham advises the IoD on policies and initiatives to promote greater diversity in business. She previously spent 30 years in financial journalism, including as City Editor of the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday. Lisa is a fellow of the Royal Society for Arts and was awarded an OBE for services to journalism and women's issues in 2010.

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