The recent viral video of Professor Robert Kelly talking to the BBC via Skype has perfectly illustrated how unconscious bias works.
When his kids break into the room and interrupt the interview, an Asian lady comes to get them. Did you see a Nanny or a Mum?
Having gone viral across the globe many US and other news outlets described the lady as Professor Kelly’s ‘maid’. Her ethnicity clearly contributed to the rather preconditioned assessment that she was working for Professor Kelly. The fact that this lady, Jung-a Kim may have been Professor Kelly’s wife failed to register.
This is, unfortunately, as clear a case of Unconscious Bias that I have witnessed in a long time.
The reporting individuals are clearly conditioned to view individuals from Asia as taking a position of servitude to the position of an educated white man.
Undoubtedly, we would have seen the same consequence had the lady been black skinned or wearing any type of cultural specific apparel such as the Islamic hijab.
Many of us would not have interpreted the scene in this way. We may have wondered whether Jung-a Kim was Professor Kelly’s wife or the children’s nanny for example, but a great many people would most certainly not have assumed the latter. It is of comfort therefore that we are not all conditioned to quite the same degree.
However, even if we didn’t make this assumption, unconscious bias affects all of us in some shape or form and we can all think of events whereby we made false assumptions based on conditioning and expectations.
In a recent blog, I referred to one of my colleagues who positioned all his questions relating to a Middle Eastern CEO of a large multinational in the masculine form – only to be corrected on the gender by an equally successful female working for the same outfit. Yet another case of unconscious bias.
Some Conscious Steps to Eradicate your Unconscious Bias
Here are some tips to stop ourselves falling into the unconscious bias trap and to help us remove the tinted lenses that otherwise obstruct our view and negatively impact our assessments of the world:
• Try and aim for a diverse and intercultural group of friends. Spending too much time in the company of others who ‘think like us’ only reinforces existing prejudice whereas making the effort to build a more intercultural or diverse peer group challenges these preconceptions and educates us about our fellow humans
• Much of our bias is the consequence of second hand opinions and rarely the consequence of personal experience. When reading the paper, for example, confront potentially spontaneous thoughts evoked by particular news items. When aware of these spontaneous thoughts, try and break down the reason for them being in your unconscious mind. Analyse whether you have personally ever encountered this situation first hand. If not, aim to ‘neutralise’ it and challenge yourself to maintain a non judgemental view
• Where possible, try to confront the object of your prejudice by spending time with 'them' with the intention of understanding them better
• Avoid reading media renowned for bias as these outlets help shape ignorance and drive intolerance by using strong words which appeal to the emotions. There are certain newspapers in the UK which constantly regurgitate intolerant opinion throughout the news being reported. Stories might, for example, refer to ‘benefit scroungers’, immigrants ‘taking our jobs’, ‘deviant Russians’ etc. This rhetoric is rarely helpful or justified but serves to create a strong sense of unconscious bias in readers as it is reiterated daily in various shapes and forms. These ‘facts’ then become the filter through which the reader interprets their world and shapes their very unconsciously (or consciously in some cases) biased world
There are great benefits to confronting and managing your unconscious bias. By freeing yourself of unconscious bias and seeing the world and those around you for what they truly are, then no matter what life throws at you, you will be able to see the wood for the trees.
In essence you will have transcended to a position of wisdom; somebody respected for the fact that they can see situations clearly, see the good in people, make robust decisions based on unbiased facts and demonstrate a positive understanding of the world due to a diverse and intercultural network.
Within the business setting, these individuals are incredibly valuable as they do not, for example, assume that international negotiations will run along the same lines that they do in the West, recruit in their like, promote individuals with inferior qualities in preference to individuals with superior qualities just because they are ‘like them’. They are more likely to get the best out of a diverse group of people and, as such, lead effectively and productively.
So give it a go – look at where you might be unconsciously biased and try to break those shackles.