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November 2016


Biases behind the booth

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“Oh it’s got nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman. I just don’t warm to her”. Today, a divided nation will take their unconscious biases to the polls.

When I get asked to explain what unconscious gender bias is I often show two pictures and ask people to say what they see. The first reaction is usually ‘a fishmonger’ and the second, ‘a woman holding a fish’. The point is, these people are both fishmongers – the first is male, the second is female – but our own unconscious bias, supported by centuries of ‘accepted’ social norms lead us to view the woman holding the fish as just that. Viewing this person as, first and foremost, a woman, and what’s that woman doing? She’s holding a fish. Both of the fishmongers are in identical work wear, and yes, with the fishmonger hats and everything. It doesn’t surprise me one bit, as unconscious bias is present in everyone. At a time when people seem to delight in dividing and putting up walls, unconscious bias is actually one of the many human characteristics that unites us all.

At a time when people seem to delight in dividing and putting up walls, unconscious bias is actually one of the many human characteristics that unites us all.

Unconscious bias is born of our evolutionary need to opt for safety. Our unconscious minds, over millennia, have been hard-wired to go for a rough average, a quick calculation based on what looks like the best route for survival. But this average-based unconscious thinking, this rough estimation, this ‘gut-feel’ can limit us from fully understanding the big picture in a modern day setting. In 2016, the risks might be a missed opportunity, a short-sighted decision or worse, limiting others around us. This is noticeable especially in the workplace –  where biases in hiring processes can lead to skewed monocultures that do not best reflect the customer bases they are there to serve.

Hillary Clinton talked about this phenomenon in January this year: “So much of the perception [about leadership] is rooted in very ancient feelings we have about the roles of men and women. I’ve had so many interesting and sometimes surprising experiences where people will say to me, ‘I never thought I’d support a woman for president but I’m at least considering it with you’. That’s a big step forward”. “Because I don’t know how we’re going to open the door for more girls and boys to live the lives they choose until we get rid of a lot of these stereotypes, these caricatures and break through together.”

We all possess unconscious biases, it’s part of who we are as humans. But maybe better to be aware, better to try and jolt ourselves past hard-wired stereotypes and think of the bigger picture. Maybe if you notice yourself referring to unknown doctors as he, or asking women if they have children but rarely men, then this could be due to unconscious gender bias. Try and make your unconscious biases conscious ones, noticing them will help to reduce them over time. Because sometimes, it’s not just a better bit of tuna you’re missing out on, but a better career opportunity, team member or even a President.

Find out more about overcoming unconscious biases here.