A Tough Pill to Swallow: Why We’re All Biased
We are all too familiar with overt bias, discrimination, and prejudice. This kind of bias is unmistakable and plain to see. We’re aware of it and we either knowingly participate in it or oppose it through increasing social awareness and movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
However, what if you were told that you were biased, even though you actively oppose it?
Let’s break down bias a bit more, first.
What is bias?
Bias is prejudice in favour of or against a thing, person, or group in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Race and ethnicity are biases we are all familiar with, and characteristics such as age, gender, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, and even height and weight are subject to bias.
You might be thinking, “But I’m not biased. I’m not racist or sexist or ageist or anything! How can I be biased?” The truth is, we’re all biased, whether we like it or not. While we might not be consciously or explicitly biased in our everyday behaviour and thoughts, we are all affected by unconscious or implicit bias.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. These biases are commonly formed subconsciously throughout life through parental and societal conditioning. Our brain processes the millions of pieces of information it gathers each day into categories and familiar patterns. Unconscious biases stem from our brain’s tendency to organise information via categorising and similarities — differences are more difficult for the brain to accommodate.
Unconscious biases are everywhere. From the neighbourhood we choose to live in, to the people we date and the company we keep, unconscious biases around characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, age, and profession all influence the assessments we make about people and how we view and interact with the world around us.
How does unconscious bias affect the workplace?
In the workplace, unconscious bias can pose a plethora of problems, such as recruiting, promoting, allocating work to, and managing performance with a skewed lens. It means that employees will continue to be disadvantaged and unheard at work, or talented people may not get the chance to enter the workforce in the first place. Employees are prevented from completely contributing to the organisation, and creativity and innovation are stifled. Unfortunately, unaddressed unconscious bias means that organisational cultures cannot genuinely say they are inclusive.
A Yale University study found that male and female scientists — who were trained to be objective — were more likely to consider men more competent, more likely to hire them, and more likely to pay them up to $4,000USD more per year than women. The scientists’ reactions when they heard what they had done? Shock. None of them realised that their internal biases were affecting their judgment and decision-making.
In a similar vein, a University of Chicago study involved mailing thousands of identical resumes to employers with active job openings and measured which fake candidates were selected for interviews. Resumes were randomly allocated either a stereotypically black name (such as Jamal or Lakisha) or a stereotypically white name (such as Brendan or Emily). They found that white names received 50 per cent more callbacks for interviews than black names. More shockingly, this discrimination was uniform across occupations and industries — employers who listed themselves as an “equal opportunity employer” were still just as likely to discriminate based on the candidate’s name.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but these biases happen in a split second and still creep up on us regardless of how open-minded and non-prejudiced we are. Its insidious nature is why it is extremely important to step back, examine our biases deeply, and be mindful of our hidden prejudices and the way they exhibit themselves in our daily words, actions, and decisions. Let’s begin to question ourselves — is there a real reason for our thoughts or behaviour towards a group of people? Or is it an unconsciously learned response?