Unconscious Bias: the Next Frontier?

Stop Bias logoWe all have implicit or “unconscious” biases that could affect who we interact with, or who we hire or in what neighbourhoods we choose to live and raise our families.

More and more organizations are recognizing this reality and many are training their employees to overcome these biases or “blind spots” as Mahzarin R. Banaji, one of the developers of Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, calls them. Others, like Pete Jones in the United Kingdom have developed tools to asses these biases.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal  “as many as 20% of large U.S. employers with diversity programs now provide unconscious-bias training, up from 2% five years ago, and that figure could hit 50% in five years.”

The diversity “industry” has been around for more than 40 years and if the critics are to be believed, it has accomplished very little in moving the needle. In some ways, that’s a fair comment. However, tremendous progress has been made since the 1960’s in making workplaces and institutions more diverse (meaning more reflective of the changing demographics in relevant communities). More women and people of colour are in the workplace and in higher positions of authority; they may not be present in the numbers many of us would want to see, but at least they are there.

The most difficult aspect of a diverse workplace is to value and leverage the diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences of everyone; that’s inclusion. And the barrier to true inclusion are those unconscious biases we have.

No one is immune to these biases, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. In fact, according to the the Harvard IAT a large segment of participants in the test associate Black people with dangerous weapons vs. White people. What may surprise you is that even Blacks have this negative association. But you should’t be surprised, after all, they are exposed to media and other negative images about Blacks just like the rest of the population.

The first step in overcoming these unconscious biases is recognition and then making an intentional effort through learning and development programs to lessen or even abolish them.

This is the next frontier in creating truly inclusive diverse workplaces and institutions.

“Stop Bias” logo is from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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