14 May, 2021
Unconscious bias has become a buzz word over recent months in HR, but what does it actually mean? And what is its impact on the education sector? It's such a soft concept that it is difficult to ascertain its application and the necessity and means to minimise and prevent its impact.
The concept came to prominence following a project in the late 90's by social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale. They carried out what they named the 'Implicit Association Test' which was designed to obtain as much information as possible on individuals' subconscious attitudes towards others. The test was intended to be a tool to measure the 'unconscious roots of prejudice' and the results demonstrated that this bias affected as many as 90-95% of people.
The test is designed to measure attitudes and beliefs that individuals might otherwise be reluctant or unable to report; essentially it can identify if you have an implicit attitude that you didn't know about. Such implicit attitudes could contribute to perpetuating inequalities in society without individuals even knowing or intending for that to be the case, and could go someway to explaining why, despite advances in challenging discrimination, inequalities remain ingrained in society to this day. This inequality inevitably spills over into the workplace, an example being the fact that studies show that white job applicants were found to be 74% more likely to have success than applicants from ethnic minorities with identical CVs.
The percentage of people affected by this 'unconscious bias', and the continuing inequality, demonstrates the size of the issue and as such, the difficulty in addressing it. Neuroscientists have uncovered brain regions involved in racial and gender stereotyping begin to form in early childhood, and that the brain responds more strongly to information about unfavourable portrayal of minority groups suggesting that negative depiction of minorities could fuel this bias, which will come no doubt as little surprise. In essence, prejudice is hard-wired into human cognition. The level of bias varies from individual to individual given that life experiences contribute to its development and can even vary from moment to moment within that individual's life.
The value in the concept of 'unconscious bias' in effecting change comes with the stress on its unconscious nature. By framing this prejudice as something that is ingrained in us from a young age from everyday depictions and associations around us, it provides a more approachable way of speaking about the problem as the 'blame' or associated value judgment isn't projected on the individual with the bias. The fact that it affects almost the entirety of all of us also helps in this respect.
This unconscious bias can impact on the workplace in unlimited ways, and has various implications for employers; ethical, legal and operational.
Without doubt, we all want a fairer and more equal society, employers and employees alike, and it is imperative we all play our part in seeking to achieve this ethically motivated goal. From a legal perspective, any form of discrimination whether intentional or not, whether by decision makers within an organisation or other staff members, can result in a tribunal claim. And from a business and operational perspective, ensuring everything is done to avoid discriminatory decisions and acts has the additional benefit of increasing morale, outlook, reputation, and also ensures that the best candidates are recruited ensuring staff are the best they can be.
So what can you do to ensure that you, as an education provider, minimise the impact of unconscious bias as far as possible? Change starts with us all as individuals. We all need to challenge ourselves and think critically about our own biases, and look to how we can apply this critical thinking to processes around us in the workplace to put this change into practice. A major area for employers is recruitment. Think critically about hiring procedures and structural barriers, write down priorities before selection processes begin, have a scoring system reflective of your desired traits. This focuses the emphasis on the requirements of the role and minimises the potential for unconscious bias to creep in. Management and school leaders should be role-models and ensure all behaviour seeks to challenge unfavourable stereotypes. Reciprocal mentoring across seniority levels has been shown to be beneficial for challenging stereotypes. And be an 'active ally' - call out bias when you see it.
Training for all staff members is also imperative; awareness is key. The more we are all aware of this inherent bias, and understand how it arises and is perpetuated, the more we can all work towards change. It brings a further dimension to equality, diversity and inclusion training that perhaps we haven't considered before.
And perhaps most importantly, appreciate and understand that the awareness and drive for change shouldn't start and end with the employee and employer relationship. There are a variety of relationships education providers and schools are required to manage, maintain and develop in their role as educators, such as the relationship with pupils, parents, governance, agencies, external activity providers and the community as a whole. By being mindful of unconscious bias and seeking to address it on a daily basis will not only have the impact of ensuring diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the satisfaction and morale of staff, but will increase the standard of educational provision, and potentially even enhance the wellbeing of the entire local community. Your school or organisation has the potential to be a catalyst for real, positive change, and will go a considerable way to challenging negative stereotypes projected to pupils in other areas of society, breaking the cycle that contributes to reinforcing unconscious bias in younger generations.
The Employment and HR Team at Forbes are experienced in advising on the impact of unconscious bias on your organisation and can also provide tailored training covering this developing area.