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Unintentionally biased: the uncomfortable truth

Published 08 June 2014

You’re a progressive person, tolerant and accepting of the many differences which we can celebrate in our society. Like many people in this day and age, you not only believe in and support greater social equality; you vehemently oppose any form of prejudice. If that is an accurate description then, fortunately, you are in the majority.

With that in mind here is a little brain teaser for you. A father and son were involved in a car accident in which the father was killed and the son was seriously injured. The father was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, while the son was rushed to the nearby hospital and was immediately wheeled into an emergency operating room. The surgeon on duty was called. Upon arrival and seeing the patient, the attending surgeon exclaimed, “Oh my God, that’s my son!” How could this be?

If this gave you pause for thought then you are not alone. This little puzzle has befuddled many who have resolved to answer this little conundrum with an array of (incorrect) answers, most commonly that it was his step father. Researchers have shown that a large proportion of people (over 40%) fail to come up with the correct answer; the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Why does this happen?

The word “surgeon”, and its connotations, is often associated as being a male profession. Without realising and often without consciously wanting to, when we think of a surgeon we think of gowned figure with in surgical mask who is, crucially, male. This phenomenon is known as stereotype activation.

Like it or not, while we have made major gains for social equality we still have quite a way to go, and historically some occupations have been, and often still are, dominated by men. This is reflected in our social environment which influences our perceptions from an early age, with such biases often being reinforced through popular culture and our media. Without consciously being aware of it we develop stereotypes to simplify our understanding of the world around us and those stereotypes are in turn formed and influenced by our environment.

So are we all bias? In short, Yes. Whether we wish to admit it or not, we are all prone to stereotypes. Interestingly, however, research has shown that people who believe that they have no bias tend to be the most bias. The reason being is that if one believes, with certainty, that they have no bias then they will have no reason to review their decisions, reflect on their actions or change anything about their behaviour.

What does this mean for your place of work?

If left unchecked, unconscious bias can have a detrimental effect on an organisation/business. It can affect people’s decision making at every level, from recruitment to talent development and people management. For example, when presented with a list of candidates can you say for certain that you or a person in charge of say recruitment would make their decisions without any bias? Would your unconscious bias regarding a person’s age, gender or race affect your decision making?

Bias can occur within management and their teams. Cliques can form within teams, in-groups and out groups, with managers unwittingly encouraging such behaviour. When managers are at the centre of such groups, this group will have better access to information, resources and opportunities. As a result, managers may not be making the most of the talent that’s available to them.

What about customer interactions? What affect do you think bias can have on how customers are treated and how will that affect your bottom line? Would your unconscious bias regarding the way a person is dressed or how they speak affect the way you treat them?

Unconscious bias can permeate through every level of an organisation influencing people’s behaviours without them even realising it. When people act upon stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously, they can be prone to making incorrect decisions. We can, however, tackle this issue to create a more harmonious working environment by simply increasing awareness of the issue, so as to allow people to reflect on their decisions and to assess if they are being influenced by any preconceived ideas.

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