More than good intentions and open minds: We all have a responsibility to end unconscious bias in the workplace
Unconscious bias is defined as “social stereotypes, attitudes, opinions and stigmas we form about certain groups of people outside of our own conscious awareness.”*
What is interesting to know is that virtually all bias is unconscious. For example, we learn to trust women to be nurturing and men to be powerful. We develop biases towards people and behaviours throughout our lives. We learn to align with people who act or look a particular way, preferably those who act and look most like ourselves.
I spent eight years at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) as the Manager of Race Relations, Equity and Inclusion. This position gave me autonomy and the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people in all aspects of the private and public sectors. Being mandated to take human rights training from NSHRC was an absolute failure for some organizations. Some did not know that treating all people with respect and dignity was important for a healthy work environment, and for the growth and economic sustainability of our province. Diversity and inclusion continue to be major challenges, and many people remain consciously and unconsciously biased toward those who are different.
After leaving government, I started my own business with the intent of continuing human rights education. I discovered that human rights, and diversity and inclusion, appeared to be irrelevant in some workplaces. While many organizations displayed the obligatory posters of a woman or person of colour, the message I received was a lack of inclusiveness in the workplace.
I was curious to know how organizations could spend time and money on this topic but not see change. What was holding them back? There was little change in numbers of diverse people in business, government, and the private sectors. Many people from equity-seeking groups felt they were not being promoted to senior positions, were not valued for what they could bring to decision-making tables, and there was a continued lack of diversity on Boards.
My research led me to the work of Doctors Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. I immersed myself in the study of unconscious bias and immediately knew that I had embarked on an area that had not been recognized or addressed in Nova Scotia. It took me some time to help leaders realize they had a challenge, and in order to make a difference in their organizations and bring about real cultural change, they had to work to shift mindsets and begin to tackle unconscious bias in their workplaces.
My breakthrough came from a most unlikely source, and what can only be described as one of the toughest work environments: the Canadian Armed Forces. I delivered training in a predominantly male environment where participants were not afraid to ask difficult questions or respectfully challenge my thinking when they felt uncomfortable.
I applaud the leaders, including base commanders, diversity managers, and the Defence Visible Minority Groups for their vision and willingness to address the issues in the workplace. As a result of my work with the Forces, others began to ask questions, and my services have extended beyond the province of Nova Scotia.
Working with very hierarchical organizations, I quickly learned about my own strength of character and abilities, and that I too had a lot to learn as I challenged my own biases.
I assessed my own thoughts, actions, and perceptions of “the other”, accepting difference and my overall experiences with people. I had to check in on myself and give family and close friends permission to call me out on my behaviour.
Where do these biases come from? It is important to recognize that social conditioning, belief systems, stereotypes, and cultural upbringing all have influence on behaviours and decision-making. Over the years, television, newspaper, and other print media, as well as social media, has a profound impact on judgments about how we profile others.
I became aware that I could have good intentions, an open mind, and still walk into a room and make assumptions about a person’s colour, gender, or ethnicity. So unconsciously, my biases manifest themselves.
With this new self-awareness, I respectfully double-check my actions, attitudes, and behaviours that may lead to someone being denied an opportunity or continuing to experience discrimination when I have the power and level of accountability to make those decisions. And I accept the feedback from others close to me about my actions, attitudes, and behaviours.
The simple fact is “human beings are consistently, routinely, and profoundly biased”, and if our biases go unchecked they lead to poor decision-making. +
As our workplaces become increasingly diverse, unconscious bias is considered the new form of discrimination , impacting who gets hired, promoted, and has access to special favours or projects.
Unfortunately, even though we have laws to address discrimination, unconscious bias is very difficult to prove in a court of law. Overcoming unconscious bias is very much dependent on individuals developing their emotional and cultural intelligence so they can recognize and value what each person has to offer in any situation. Only then will we create truly diverse and inclusive workplaces.
* Howard J. Ross. 2014. Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgements in Our Daily Lives.
Ann Divine, Founder & CEO, Ashanti Leadership
Ann Divine is founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership and Development Services, and provides career and professional guidance in leadership development. Ann’s work is underpinned by her knowledge and expertise in human rights and people management. Her unique style combined with adult education principles has brought her recognition in the fields of leadership development, change management, coaching and mentoring, facilitation, diversity and inclusion, and more recently unconscious bias training.
Ann has lived on three continents and worked in diverse organizations and communities in senior management positions in London, UK, and Canada. She has a Sociology (Hon) Degree; a Diploma in Social Work; a master’s degree in Human Resource Management, Human Rights; and a Coaching Federation Certificate, Adult Education and Leadership Development. Ann is a popular public speaker on social justice, leadership development, and inclusivity. Recently, she provided her informed commentary on the issue of racial profiling at Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12, 2018, to Thompson Reuters media. In November 2017, she received an award from My Halifax Experience as one of the Top 25 Immigrants in the Maritimes. In April 2018, Ann was nominated as one of RBC’s Top 25 Immigrants. For more information, visit ashantileadership.com.