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Is unconscious bias the next big diversity challenge?


Thanks to tough campaigning by many key interest groups, successive Acts of Parliament and changing public attitudes, real progress has been made in the advancement of diversity, equality and inclusion in the UK. The effects have been felt particularly in the workplace, as employers have woken up to the fact that a diverse workforce offers real performance benefits and opportunities.

The news is not all good, though. Despite these improvements, ethnic minorities continue to be under-represented in the workplace. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that rates of unemployment are stubbornly high among ethnic groups, with women faring worse then men. As an example, in 2011 the average unemployment rate was 6.8% for women and 8.3% for men. In the same year, the figures for all ethnic groups were 14.3% and 13.2% respectively. So in an age of greater tolerance and acceptance, why is this the case?

Unconscious bias has been identified as a significant challenge in the workplace. Put simply, unconscious biases can be defined as ‘our implicit people preferences, formed by our socialisation, our experiences, and by our exposure to others’ views about other groups of people’.

Take this example, for instance:

Joshua Bell, a world-renowned classical musician, took to a Metro station in L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, in rush hour to play some of the finest classic pieces written on one of the world’s most expensive violins.

Disguised as a street performer, he was acknowledged by only a tiny handful of people, with the majority walking straight past the performance of a lifetime. Bell made a total of $32.17 in the performance which lasted 43 minutes and was heard by over a thousand people. Three days before, he had filled the house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where seats sold for $100 each.

Was this outcome the result of unconscious biases the public tend to hold against street performers? Or perhaps the passersby simply didn’t like his music. Either way, I wonder how many times a similar situation has occurred in interview situations, and how many talented people have been rejected from jobs due to preconceptions and unconscious biases of their interviewers.

Returning to the problems faced by ethnic minorities, there is real anecdotal evidence that unconscious bias could be a factor in problems they encounter in finding employment. A BBC report in December last year highlighted the cases of ethnic minority women advised to ‘whiten’ their job applications by using more English-sounding names.

So how can e-learning help companies (including recruitment agencies) overcome these challenges so that they can avoid overlooking talented individuals? There is a real need for plausible, scenario-based content which helps employees understand both deliberate and unconscious bias. It’s also critical that the training helps to deliver real behavioural change. For example, when an employer is conducting an interview with a candidate of ethnic origin, they must disregard the preconceptions they may hold and assess the candidate based purely upon the skills and experience that he or she can offer.

We still have a long way to go before we reach that ideal, but at least in recognising the problem of unconscious bias we can start to take steps to address the solution.

Do you think unconscious bias might be affecting your business performance? Talk to Saffron Interactive on Stand 33 at the Learning Technologies Show.

One Response

  1. There’s a quote in this
    There’s a quote in this article – do you know where it comes from?

    Unconscious bias is: “our implicit people preferences, formed by our socialisation, our experiences, and by our exposure to others’ views about other groups of people.”

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