Jane Dalton, Director of Groundswell Innovation 

Unconscious bias. It's a thing.

If anyone was sitting A-levels this year, examiners would be thanking the outgoing UK Chairman of KPMG for providing them with a perfect essay question.      

There is no such thing as unconscious bias because despite all of the training we do about it, nothing improves.  

Discuss.  

Where to start. Ok, how about this? The Times printed an article last week explaining how the musical output of a UK composer achieved success when submitted under a man’s name but not when submitted under a woman’s name.  Thank goodness classical music has begun to adopt blind auditions.  It’s one of the few situations where we can forcibly blank out unhelpful data that might steer decisions about applicant quality 

If you want more examples of unconscious bias, try manoeuvring a wheelchair around an office block designed 50 + years ago.  Did the architects really mean to discriminate against people with a physical disability? Or did they do it without realising?   

What about the admission last summer from the National Police Chiefs’ Council that Black, Asian and minority ethnic people were issued with fixed-penalty notices ‘disproportionately’ during lockdown in England and Wales?   

Unconscious bias is most definitely a thing.  

We all make decisions based on learned experience.  We use shortcut devices called biases, to help us do that at speed.  Every day.  
Most of the time past experience guides us in a helpful way, keeping us safe and following paths we know work well.  Sometimes it guides us towards poor decision making.     

What about Unconscious Bias training – shouldn’t that eradicate the problem?  

For the answer to this question, we have to realise that the clue is in the name. UNconscious bias.  If you don’t know you are part of the system propping up the gender pay gap for example, how can you possibly become part of the solution?  

As Maya Angelou said:  

“Do the best you can until you know better.  
Then when you know better, do better.” 

The bias we are conscious of, we can work on removing, but it takes time and practice. If you are a sports player and someone points out a fault with your technique, it doesn’t mean the fault goes away. It means you now know what you have to work on, to improve your game.  

UB training is most definitely not eradicating bias in all its many forms, but there are signs it is an effective part of the answer.  A study published in June last year for example, concluded that “sexism is being kept alive in the workplace by people who think it is no longer an issue.” The people (female as well as male) who didn’t think gender bias existed were the ones most likely to think that male staff were more competent and deserving of higher pay. Become aware of your unhelpful biases and you become part of the solution.   

Training alone, can’t take away the problem completely because what we are asking people to do is to think and act differently.  There is a big gap between how people say they will act in future and how they choose to act in the moment, so no amount of changing people’s intent in a training session will work on its own.  We will all revert back to our existing bias, if the context does not change.   

Let’s make it easy for people to do the right thing.  

There are stickers being put by light switches that say ‘thank you for turning out the lights’ and there are charges for plastic bags in supermarkets.  This is the kind of idea we need to be seeing more of in the workplace if we want the good intentions laid down in Unconscious Bias training to become lived behaviour.  

How many male role models do you have within your organisation who are active and vocal sponsors for female talent? How culturally and neurally diverse are the people working in your recruitment team? What are the anecdotal stories that are letting people know ‘it’s ok to...’ and ‘it’s not ok to…’?  

Are people really being incentivised within your organisation to speak out when structures, strategies and every day processes are working to embed unconscious bias rather than to remove it?  

Or is your Chairperson saying things like ‘all unconscious bias training is a load of hooey’?  

It’s time to take a long hard look at how easy we are making it for people to do better, now that we know better.