Why Everybody’s Talking About Bias

Aug 22, 2017 | Articles, Featured

Gender equality, or the lack of it, is a huge topic at work, in the media, and in society. To many people, it would appear that the idea of gender inequality is out-dated, and could be sorted with a quick-fix like simply raising women’s wages to that of their male colleagues. It has been tried in Hollywood, with actors such as Jennifer Lawrence publically praising her male co-stars for taking wage cuts in the name of equality. It is happening in Iceland, with full transparency of public and private sector wages demanded by 2022. Other initiatives, like quotas, targets, changes in education systems, equality training are also being implemented around the world. So why aren’t they producing the change we need? One word: Bias.

Bias affects us all. There are hundreds of different biases that shape how we view ourselves, others, and all of life around us. Some of these biases persist because they were once helpful for our survival, when hunter-gatherer human being lived in small groups which competed for scarce resources. So, for example, if you were very aware of ‘strangers’, people ‘not like me’, you might escape being killed by a rival group. Seeing someone ‘not like me’ as a threat might have worked then, but can be very damaging now.

This could be divisive as race, religious belief, nationality, or even which sports team you support defines who you see as a friend or foe.

The “us and them”, or in-group out-group, bias is one of many that might dictate what opportunities will be given to us, and what opportunities will pass us by. Another of the most common biases is the stereotype bias, which draws conclusions about people based on a multitude of factors, drawn from our experiences and cultures. Stereotypes, like most biases, are shortcuts the brain takes to enable us to navigate our world more quickly. But some stereotypes, such as “men are more ‘this’ than women”, or women are better than ‘that’ than men, tend to shape the way people are hired and managed.

In some cases, these stereotypes become self-fulfilling. There is evidence that shows that individuals tend to absorb their society’s and culture’s prevailing views, however biased ¹. So very many, possibly the majority, of little girls in the UK don’t expect to be better than boys at maths, and their performance reflects their beliefs in their capabilities, or lack of them.

Biases are deep-rooted, pervasive and mostly unconscious. So stereotypes and biases are very powerful influencers of behaviour and culture. Without tackling bias, the best policies, training programmes and D&I strategies cannot succeed in redressing inequality.

Let’s take ex Google employees James Damore’s recent memo. He stated, among other things, that men are more suited to tech based jobs than women. Some of the science he quotes might have some validity, there are structural differences in men’s and women’s brains. But these are small, (and disputed) and no one yet knows what they might mean in terms of behaviour ². But the majority of his comments reflect stereotype bias and what Lara Williams calls ‘biological determinism’ in her New Scientist rebuttal of 19 August 2017.

The good news is that bias, even the most deep-rooted, can be challenged and addressed. It isn’t easy, but with the right knowledge, motivation, training and practice, it can be done. Knowing that everyone is biased, and being aware of one’s own biases, are the first steps, Understanding that a likely biased reaction, judgement or thought doesn’t have to lead to biased action is crucial. Finally learning how to manage one’s own actions, and/or those of groups or teams, in situations in which bias is most likely to emerge is the key.