International Women’s Day 8 March 2022 #BreakTheBias

Out of the blue, a day or two ago, I got an email, from an organisation I worked for, asking if I would make a 30 – 40 second video to mark international women’s day, and ‘perhaps start a tradition to encourage our female members to keep challenging and bringing to life our community with their comments, questions, and contributions. Would you be interested?’

Without committing myself, I asked what they had in mind.  The reply came: ‘you can say hello and where you’re located, perhaps share why you got into your field of work, and why you consider it important to celebrate the 8th of March for women. Perhaps a few words of encouragement or advice?’

I agreed to do it.  My first stop was to look at the International Women’s Day website.   The theme this year is #BreakTheBias.  

Bias is pervasive and can be destructive when beliefs about ethnicity, gender, capability and so on remain unexamined.  So, the idea of #BreakTheBias for International Women’s Day is a bold and laudable theme.  Thinking about it though, I suggest that we need to take three actions in order to #BreakTheBias:

#BraveTheBias:  many systems, particularly in organisations are well-documented sources of negative bias e.g. grading, performance management, pay, recruitment, performance management.  Be brave in pointing out system supported bias (or other supported bias) and take actions to reduce it.

#BefriendTheBias:  biases are born through upbringing, culture, religion, societal norms and expectations.  If people show bias in ways that seem strange, difficult or unacceptable – find out more, how did they arise.  Explore the biases take a learner view of them not a judger view.

#BewareTheBias:  reflect on your own biases – positive and negative, conscious and unconscious – which of your biases may be blinkering you and which may be helping you?  What benefits will knowing more about your biases bring to you?

Below I look a bit further at each of these.

#BraveTheBias: Several times employers have required me as one of their employees to take an unconscious bias course.  I couldn’t see how a couple of hours training could address the deep structural, societal and cultural issues around unconscious bias.   You could say I was biased against unconscious bias training!

Nevertheless, I went along with doing them and did find some limited value.  I started noticing how bias comes into everyday life. For example, there are very few greetings cards in the UK that depict people other than white, ditto advertisements, organisational websites/info packs, comics, children’s books, cartoons, and so on.   (Though this is getting better).  Many times I’ve challenged the photos proposed or used.

Maybe because I’m older, I am sensitive to the invisibility and stereotyping of older people, and getting better at challenging the bias I notice around this.   (Writing to advertisers, pointing out to people when they stereotype ‘grannies’).  Do my younger friends notice the bias against older people and go along with the stereotypes of them, I wonder? 

 #BefriendTheBias We seem to be biased against the word ‘bias’, it has now got a negative connotation.   There seems to be much less discussion about the positive aspects of bias. But there are some who try to redress the negative view.  One, is Matt Grawitch who talks about adaptive biases (positive) and maladaptive biases (negative).   His view is that ‘Biases evolved to allow us to make satisficing choices in an efficient way. Giving equal consideration to all possibilities is often a cognitively demanding process. Biases make decision-making easier by giving us a starting point, an initial prediction, or a “leaning of the mind” regarding which choice to make. We anchor our original judgment in the biased conclusion and then adjust it based on supplemental information. In many cases, these biases are based on legitimate evidence. For example, we would be generally advised to favor the medical recommendations of doctors over those of people with no medical training.’

As bias is inevitable and everyone has biases, talking with people who are different from us (and have different biases), exploring the roots of the biases and seeking to understand them, would, perhaps, help us collaboratively find opportunities and methods to break the negative bias where it exists. 

Verna Myers TEDx talk is very powerful on the topic of talking to each other.  She says ‘Biases are the stories we make up about people, before we know who they actually are’, and urges us to get to know people we feel uncomfortable with/about. 

#BewareTheBias: Frederick Herbert,asks the question Is unconscious bias training still worthwhile?  (He’s a researcher officer in behavioural science at LSE’s The Inclusion Initiative)He is particularly clear at putting the case for and against unconscious bias training.   He provides evidence for the point that ‘there is little compelling evidence for the effectiveness of unconscious bias training.’ And also says, ‘The impact of [negative] bias remains pervasive.’

I took this as an argument to carefully reflect on our own biases.  Being aware, first of all what a bias is.  I feel the definition from Psychology Today, is helpful, saying, ‘A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone. Some biases are positive and helpful—like choosing to only eat foods that are considered healthy or staying away from someone who has knowingly caused harm. But biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance. Whether positive or negative, such cognitive shortcuts can result in prejudgments that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.’ 

On negative bias i.e. a bias that causes harm, the Asana blog lists  19 unconscious biases to overcome and help promote inclusivity, (in the workplace), has ideas on how ‘you can reduce their impact with deliberate attention and effort. Being aware of and understanding the different types of biases that exist can help you find ways to combat them.’   

A start for self-reflection on my own biases, that I’ve found helpful is taking the Implicit Association Test now to start breaking some of them.   

What three pieces of advice/encouragement would you give someone in helping them #BreakTheBias?  Let me know.

(Thanks to H for some of the links).

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