Diversity – The role of unconscious bias

Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda of many employers, and rightly so. Not only is there an undisputed moral argument for diversity, there is also ample evidence proving the business case for diversity – more diverse businesses are more successful and profitable.

In the wake of the first year of gender pay reporting, which has highlighted a lack of gender diversity at the top of companies, and with calls for introducing reporting on the race pay gap, the question that arises is not whether there is disparity – we know there is – but what the causes of it are, and what can be done to address it.

The reasons for disparity and inequality are various but an often cited cause and one that is receiving an increasing amount of attention, is unconscious bias. Also termed ‘implicit bias’, these biases are prejudices, albeit often subtle, that we all have but are unaware of. They reside in the deepest part of our minds (referred to as the unconscious by psychologists) and influence the decisions made by business leaders at all levels. Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews, affect recruitment and promotion and unwittingly undermine an organisation’s culture.

One way of assessing the extent of one’s unconscious biases is to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The majority of people taking this test show evidence of unconscious bias, suggesting that most people are biased in some way even if they do not think of themselves as such. However, the IAT is not the only measure of unconscious bias and there is plenty of other evidence and numerous studies showing its prevalence.

One Harvard University study, for example, showed that white job applicants received 50 per cent more job offers than black applicants with identical CVs.  Another study in the US found that college professors were 26 per cent more likely to respond to a student’s email when it was signed by an individual with a male Caucasian sounding name than a name signalling that the individual was from an ethnic minority or a woman. Similarly, a Yale University study found that male and female scientists (trained to reject the subjective) were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency and pay them more than women, simply based on the typically male and female names on otherwise equivalent CVs.

But if it is unconscious, can it be tackled?

Fighting bias is necessary to create a workplace that fully supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people. Unconscious bias awareness training for managers is becoming increasingly common in an attempt to uncover unconscious bias, allowing employees to identify their own biases and those of the organisation as a whole. However, while no doubt an essential first step, research has shown that it is not sufficient to just change the mind sets of individuals. An organisation’s structure and processes may also have to change.

Behavioural design – de-biasing organisations by changing the environment – has more recently been promoted as a way to move the needle on equality. In her book “What works – Gender equality by design”, Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist and professor at Harvard, puts forward practical steps for reducing bias and achieving equality. Steps include using big data to improve our understanding of what is broken and needs fixing, using blind or comparative evaluation procedures to hire the best talent, changing the physical work environment, increasing transparency and using role models to shift hidden biases.

The solutions offered in the book are based on behavioural science and data collected in numerous trials, and provide straightforward plans of action to help employers “design” equality. While focusing on gender, the recommendations can apply to inequality more widely.

We now know that there are ways of tackling unconscious bias – including by making the unconscious conscious through awareness training, by challenging stereotypes and by designing organisations to reduce bias. Using these tools employers will be better placed to help level the playing field and reap the rewards of a more diverse workforce.