First things first; what is unconscious bias?
It’s the judgments, assessments, and thoughts that happen in your brain without you even realising that they’re happening.
The idea of Unconscious Bias first came to light in 1998 with the Implicit Association Test, first developed by Yale and Washington Universities. It helped people find out what their own unconscious biases were, and then take steps to challenging them.
Harvard also developed a platform called Project Implicit, where you can take various tests to find out about your own implicit biases. The tests are numerous, and extremely interesting (I took several, and despite trying to be as fair handed as possible, it showed that I have biases I wasn’t aware of). There are tests around religion, gender, race, age, skin tone, career, sexuality, and more. Each test has certain requirements that you, as the test-taker, must be able to meet before being able to take the test (for example, in order for the religious test to work, you need to have some familiarity with religious terms from various world religions).
It is important to remember, however, that the tests are not diagnostic, and it has been estimated that someone’s result can swing by 4% either way, depending on what mood/state of mind they’re in. That might not sound like a lot to you or I, but to an employer who makes hundreds of employment decisions in a year, 4% could make a big difference in their numbers.
I’d heard a lot about it because of where I work, and it’s also mentioned in ‘The Guilty Feminist’ by Deborah Frances-White. I took the Gender – Science IAT (Implicit Association Test) to find out where I sat when grouping thinking about Men/Women and Science/Liberal Arts. Naturally, I hoped that I would come out directly down the middle, but:
As you can see – I fell in with the crowd. Whilst it’s comforting to know that my implicit biases aren’t out of the norm, it’s not exactly great that 54% of those who had taken this test had a moderate or higher association of males with science and females with the liberal arts, including myself. This matters when we’re thinking about who to hire, which experts to believe, and which doctor we want to see. These biases have influence on how we make these decisions.
So, why is it important to know what your unconscious biases are? We make split-second judgements all the time; often in order to keep ourselves safe. When we see a truck hurtling down the road towards us, we don’t want to stop and think about whether it’s dangerous to keep standing in it’s way; our brain will make a split-second decision to get out of the way by any means necessary, probably saving our life. It doesn’t need our conscious input on that one, thank you very much.
But these implicit associations are very different when it comes to other people. It’s devastatingly important to know, whether you’d like to admit it or not, whether you’re part of the 76%(!) of people who tend to think of men being better suited to careers, and women being better suited to being homemakers (Forbes). Only once you are aware of these things, can you begin to challenge them.
It’s not just (as you might think) the old “men vs women” thoughts either; women executives who have taken the tests are shown to be biased against other career driven women.
The first step to changing anything is self-awareness. Once armed with that, you can begin to make changes outside of yourself; taking ideas for change into the workplace, or discussing it with family and friends.