5 steps to reduce unconscious bias in your workplace

Steve Thompson
Steve ThompsonCommunications Advocate

Unconscious bias is a reality in our lives, in our culture, and in the workplace. And now it's becoming codified in artificial intelligence (AI).

biased dictionary definition

Unconscious bias is hard for us to acknowledge – partly because it's a painfully enlightening process, and partly because, being unconscious, our biases are hard for us to recognise. Consider the following – are any of them things you think or used to think?

  1. Blue is for boys, pink for girls.
  2. Boys are better at maths and science.
  3. Tall people make better leaders.
  4. New mothers are more absent from work than new fathers.
  5. People with tattoos are rebellious.
  6. Younger people are better with technology than older people.

Biases develop and are reinforced over time through the influence of family, friends and colleagues who share these biases, as well as from the wider influences of culture and media. They can often become part of our unconscious thinking.

The false beliefs we encounter in everyday life can also manifest themselves in our everyday decision-making, including in the workplace. Legislation aims to protect citizens from these many biases in the workplace. For example, the Equality Act protects against discrimination in employment.

Bias in recruitment

Recruitment advertising and the selection process have been subjected to bias scrutiny for many years, with organisations implementing a variety of neutral hiring practices. The removal of name, age and gender from CVs and other applications is common practice before passing this information to interviewing managers. Recruitment advertising agencies use a number of copywriting techniques to ensure that job adverts don't include vocabulary or phrases that could be misinterpreted.

Blind recruitment is often used at the audition stage for musicians: screens are used to hide the gender of a candidate musician from the judging panel in order to reduce any potential gender bias. This has increased the proportion of female musicians moving to the final rounds of a selection process.

You may well be saying you know all this already. But did you know that there is potential for unconscious bias in automated systems, too?

Bias and machine learning

Artificial intelligence and machine learning rely heavily on the use of code libraries that have been built up over many years, and predominantly written by Caucasian white male engineers in the technology sector. We are building the potential for bias to be codified.

In the US, the use of facial recognition software in law enforcement has highlighted racial biases in the coding of algorithms and associated training data. Research by the University of Bath, reported in the magazine Science shows that computers which use human written language as a source for machine learning learn a level of implicit bias too, which could have knock-on effects in their supposedly 'bias-neutral' performance, such as in language translation or recruitment screening.

There is an increasing call for the technology sector to investigate any biases in artificial intelligence software and understand the implications of its use, whether that be on a legal basis or otherwise.

5 steps to reduce unconscious bias in your workplace

1. Be aware of generalisations
Stereotypical views and generalisations creep into our language. Listen and reflect on the language used by you and your colleagues. Be alert for misplaced adjectives, broad sweeping statements and questions in conversations, meetings, reports and presentations: 'the new trainees always want...', 'working mums never...', 'why can't the finance team do...'.

2. Challenge your decision-making
Get into the habit of asking yourself 'why am I thinking this way?' Be particularly aware of first impressions and gut reactions in your decision-making. These biases may be more prevalent when we are stressed, tired or under pressure.

3. Take a test
Harvard University have developed a series of Implicit Association Tests (the Harvard IAT) to enable individuals to discover any unconscious biases. These tests are online, open to all and free to use. Businesses are now using these and similar tests throughout their organisations to actively address the issues of unconscious biases.

Invest time in understanding your own tendencies by taking these tests. Once aware of any biases, you can take steps to own your personal biases, reflect on your behaviours and introduce steps to reduce and eliminate bias from your actions.

4. Avoid groupthink
We all have a tendency to surround ourselves with similar people – people like us. This is called affinity bias. Repeated, shared decision-making can lead to groupthink, and this may have unintended consequences for other groups.

5. Work beyond your comfort zone
Look for ways to involve yourself with groups who have different backgrounds outside your organisation. Look for opportunities to spend time with people who have similar skillsets but different working environments. Offer positive feedback to the work of different groups, not just your own.

 

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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