Redressing unconscious bias to promote equality

By Paula Cerruti

“When I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court and I say, 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2015

The formation of a new government is one of the clearest opportunities for society to take stock of where we are in terms of inclusion, equality, and representation. The situation in Ireland is quite clear: women make up over half the electorate, but unfortunately still fall short when it comes to political decision-making. The numbers speak for themselves: 22.5% of Dáil seats, 25% of Junior ministries and 27% of Cabinet ministries are held by women.

Historically these numbers don't appear to be too bad. They follow a similar trend to figures in the last government, and don't stand out too strongly amongst regional or global representation indexes and figures. In the eyes of many, these numbers are not only acceptable, they're good.

Why do we see four women out of 14 ministers as normal and acceptable when a government with 10 women of 14 ministers would cause friction and headlines all over the world? The answer is unconscious bias, or in other words, the systemic stereotypes that support, demonstrate and reinforce structural discrimination inherent in our societies.

Gender is just one of many levels of discrimination: unconscious bias is one of the main forces enabling racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist and a whole plethora of other discriminatory behaviours unfortunately witnessed too often in our everyday lives. In fact, public figures like Prince Harry and Keir Starmer have made headlines this week addressing their own shortcomings when it comes to unconscious bias in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Unconscious bias enables a lack of diversity at decision-making level which then stretches to all dimensions, with profound negative consequences to minority and under-represented groups of all kinds. These irrational perceptions and subtle preconceptions influence how we behave both as citizens and professionals, impacting our voting preferences, our perceptions of leadership, and our behaviours at polling stations, at work, and in pretty much any aspect of our public and private lives.

Of all the shapes that discrimination can take, unconscious bias might just be one of the most dangerous, not because it's the most visible but because it is invisible, subconscious, and therefore so much more difficult to identify and address.

Unconscious bias is one of the biggest challenges facing organisations looking to diversify their workforce and create inclusive cultures and environments as it affects every level of the employee journey process: interviewing, onboarding, performance reviews, promotions, salary negotiations. If left unchecked unconscious bias can severely impact the day to day life of any organisation, more often than not without us even realising the extent of it.

So how can organisations address and redress discrimination in its most unconscious, intangible form?

  1. Understand and acknowledge your unconscious bias:

As is often the case, the first step to solving a problem is recognising that you have one. We are all guided by unconscious perceptions to a point, but as professionals and citizens it is important to recognise these patterns, identify them, question them and correct them in order to stop our prejudices and stereotypes from negatively affecting others. Awareness training is a great first step to understand our own unconscious biases and how they affect and impact our decision-making processes.

  1. Understand the shape unconscious bias takes within your organisation:

Because of the intangible nature of unconscious bias, it can sometimes be difficult for organisations to fully grasp the extent of its impact. Data can be a great way to help organisations identify gaps and limitations. Who is being hired? Who is getting promoted? Are salaries even and fair for all? What does diversity look like at the top? Do your employees feel comfortable being themselves at work? What is their experience of discrimination in the workplace? A research and data-led approach is the best, most reliable way to identify and uncover unequal or unfair patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed by leadership. Listening to what your data is telling you and listening to your employees is a vital step.

  1. Redress balance by giving more groups a seat at the table:

Diversity promotes diversity: the more groups that are represented at decision-making level, the better the likelihood that decisions made at the highest level will be balanced and fair. Not only will inclusive teams help combat unconscious bias and discrimination by promoting positive feedback loops, but they will also help drive change and innovation, promote a positive workplace culture and increase employee trust and engagement.

  1. Hold yourself and your organisation accountable:

Real change won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t happen out of luck. An honest, transparent and structured process needs to be put in place, with clear, measurable objectives and reasonable action channels to achieve them. Targets, KPIs, quotas, and clear timelines are all integral parts of the process towards building a more diverse and representative workforce.

When it comes to fighting discrimination and promoting diversity, often the biggest challenge is to be ambitious. Whether in business or in politics, nothing short of equal, fair representation should feel right. While goals need to be realistic, it is also important that they are affirmative and robust to help inspire and support radical change. It seems about time we let go of the thought that because things aren't getting worse, they are improving. It's 2020, why should we settle for anything short of equal representation and participation?


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