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The impact of bias and how to address it

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Aug 2021

A panel of diversity and inclusion experts share their experiences of bias, both conscious and unconscious, and how organisations can deal with it effectively.

Unconscious – and conscious – bias is everywhere, and people often don’t see it in themselves. To create a truly diverse and inclusive working environment, the conversation needs to change. 

It even affects people who work in diversity and inclusion (D&I). Stacey Gordon, D&I consultant and CEO of Rework Work, told a story of where she caught her own unconscious bias – assuming a woman she was going to meet was an assistant because she was black. “We had a whole conversation about that and why I would think she was the assistant. She was the VP of a large bank and it's unheard of to be a black person with a VP title at this level. So I made an assumption, and it was wrong,” she explained at ICAEW’s Virtually Live.

Lanre Sulola, a senior development coach and facilitator at Inner Ambitions, had a similar experience, assuming that a person wasn’t right for a role he was recruiting for based purely on their age. “To me, unconscious bias is taking the shortcut. It’s going with what you've always known. It’s what you're familiar with, what you've done before, so you can get to where you need to get to without the whole issue of trying to find out: is this the right person? Is this the way to do things?” 

Addressing bias is so tricky, said Carolanne Minashi, global head of inclusion, HSBC, because it requires people to accept that what they like to think of themselves isn’t actually true. “Often there's this disconnect between the actual patterns of that behaviour – that is, what you really are thinking and doing versus what you think you're thinking or doing. In corporate life, we've got a level of sophistication about this topic now. People are very able to talk about it in a way, but sometimes their behaviour isn't really mirroring what they are espousing.”

Unconscious biases also often stem from a positive or well-meaning place, said Asif Sadiq, head of equity and inclusion at WarnerMedia. He recalled a time where someone praised him after a speaking event for all he’d achieved “against the odds”. The person assumed that he was from a lower socioeconomic background. 

“I'm actually from East Africa, I've had a fairly good upbringing and access to good opportunities. Yes, I’ve been discriminated against for certain things, but coming from a lower socioeconomic background isn't one of them. Her intent was positive, but you could still see that the biases that were built up within her head told her that someone like me fits into this box.” 

These biases can be extremely wearing to people on the receiving end of them, he explained. “You start realising that there's this bias that people approach you with without actually exploring what your identity is...There's a lot of assumptions, there's a lot of stereotypes. 

“It's even more important, in my mind, that when we talk about these biases, is to acknowledge the impact of some of these things. When I look at my experiences when I first experienced [bias], the impact was huge because it put me into another box. I wasn't me anymore.”

All of the panellists had similar experiences with bias levelled at them, sometimes unconscious, sometimes blatant. 

Gordon grew up in Brixton before moving to the United States and while in London, there was a certain area near her home where local children would call her racial slurs. “That comes from hearing their parents talk about things, from not understanding and from making assumptions about me based on the colour of my skin.”

The biases that Gordon experiences are more subtle, but it’s constant. “I'm black, and every single interaction that I have with people is clouded by that.”

Minashi watched her adopted son, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, deal with his experiences of bias both in his workplace (he is a junior doctor for the NHS) and in his personal life. “As early as Mother's Day this year, he was visiting us and he got stopped by the police at the end of my road - clear profiling. He's got, to be fair, a clapped out old car, but he was stopped and the reason why he was stopped is because he didn't fit the picture of somebody who lives in this neighbourhood.”

Sulola points out that sometimes biases manifest themselves internally. In early roles, the fact that no senior leaders and very few colleagues looked like him left him dealing with imposter syndrome. “There was this quiet voice that I used to hear: ‘don't say too much, don't let on that you're struggling or you need help, because you're going to get found out’. I think a lot of that is that self-bias that we're seeing in ourselves is just as impactful.”

Thankfully, things are changing. The pandemic kick-started a mass dialogue where people felt like they had the space to openly discuss these issues, and more people were willing to listen, said Minashi. “It was started around George Floyd and race, but it has enabled so many broader inclusive conversations. People can talk about the microaggressions that they experience on a day to day basis. There's been a shift in understanding. I think that is the most important thing...Walking a mile in someone else's shoes and listening to the lived experience, that's been super helpful.”

Sadiq offered advice for how to have meaningful and effective conversations about bias. Acknowledge that someone’s perception is their reality – for example, if an individual thinks your organisation is racist, you might not agree, but that perception should not be invalidated. These conversations also need vulnerability; people need to be able to admit when they’re wrong. There is no room for defensiveness.

Many people don’t know how to have a conversation about bias, added Sulola. Often, people are worried about getting it wrong. They often would prefer not to have the conversation at all. “We're always looking for perfection, but we don't need a perfect script or way of presenting this to make it work, because then we'll always get stuck. It's about that progression.”

The conversation needs to be a true dialogue, not a lecture. People should be encouraged to discuss the issues openly. The conversation should also have a clear purpose.

“In order for you to recognise something, you first have to know what exists,” says Gordon. “There's got to be some awareness and thought about how we're going to get there. We've got to start talking to people, we need to do stakeholder interviews, we need to be doing focus groups...really looking at what is happening within the company, because then you can take action on something once you know what it is.

“It's really sad, the number of employees that we've talked to who do not trust their companies. And, and rightfully so, I can't even say that they're overthinking it. We have seen actual evidence where IT departments reverse-engineer surveys to find out who said what. This is why consultants need to come in sometimes to do this work.”

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