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  • Writer's pictureJulia Makhubela

The hidden dangers of Unconscious Bias at work

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are crucial factors in creating fairer workplaces and becoming an employer of choice for the socially conscious employee. However, a significant challenge that often hinders these efforts is unconscious bias—the hidden prejudices that influence decision-making.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a “human condition”, experts say, that we all share in common. It begins in childhood, a time when we quickly learn to categorise people and places - often without realising it.

In adulthood, these biases become more deeply ingrained. When we meet a stranger, we assign them a group identity based on the way they look and the way they sound. We might analyse: whether they are a man or a woman; whether they are short or tall; young or old; black, white or Asian. In short, we’re making a range of judgments in a split second and anyone who claims not to do this is unaware of their mind.

But while unconscious bias is a reality, it’s perfectly possible - in fact, necessary - to interrogate these assumptions. This is especially true in the workplace, where these biases stealthy seep into recruitment, performance evaluations, promotions, and everyday interactions, creating an environment ripe for inequality and hindered growth.

Why is bias bad in the workplace?

Bias impacts hiring decisions

As Rebecca Knight notes in the Harvard Business Review: “[a] vast body of research shows that the hiring process is biased and unfair. Unconscious racism, ageism, and sexism play a big role in who gets hired.” 

The key? Biased hiring practices aren’t always intentional. Often we do our best to be fair-minded, but we typically end up choosing someone who looks like us and talks like us. The literature on this topic is ubiquitous: we favour people who are similar to us because similarities make us feel safe. 

Bias impacts pay

Thanks to unconscious bias, men often get paid more than women - for doing the same work. 

This point was neatly illustrated by a study that analysed the way men and women were dealt with when applying for a research position in the Sciences. Faculty staff received one of two identical CVs. The only difference? One CV had the name of a man, the other the name of a woman. 

The faculty staff were asked to grade the CV they received (either the man’s or the woman’s), nominate whether they would hire that individual, and suggest a suitable starting salary.

When the study was over, it became clear that the man had a higher success rate, despite the fact “his” experience and qualifications were identical to “hers”. The man was also given a higher starting salary overall. 

It’s worth noting that the study included the participation of both men and women, who then went ahead and judged the CVs. Thus, bias in favour of one sex can be perpetuated by both sexes.

Bias impacts who we assign important work to

In high-stress workplaces, men are often viewed as more capable than women. 

Not convinced? Imagine a scenario where you’re on a transatlantic flight. When the pilot addresses you and your fellow passengers, you hear a woman’s voice. Almost invariably, a twinge of doubt will take hold. This is because you believe, implicitly, that women are less adept at highly demanding jobs. 

But why? There is no evidence to support the assumption that female pilots are any less capable, and many of the most high-profile aviation disasters have seen men at the helm, not women. 

Yet the bias persists. Men are still more likely to be viewed as “brilliant” in the workplace and they’re more likely to win promotions as well

Bias impacts how work is reviewed

Underrepresented groups often face harsher criticism and are less likely to receive credit for their work. 

In short, if we hold biases against a person - or group - we’ll find reasons to mark them down without realising it. 

Imagine, for instance, that we believe women are inherently emotional. If so, we might hone in on the perceived “emotionality” of their work, irrespective of how it actually appears. 

By holding a bias that we believe is true, we inadvertently look for patterns to confirm this bias. 

Why unconscious bias training is important

Our brains enjoy seeing the world in black and white. Indeed, intellectual certainty is comforting, yet it means that we fail to notice our own biases even as we complain about them in others.

Unconscious bias training develops intellectual humility

To offset this, it’s important to practise intellectual humility. In our diversity, equity and inclusion workshops, we teach decision-makers to interrogate the views they hold, and to ask why they hold them. The idea is that we’re all holding on to certain assumptions that are false, and that we’re making judgements that need constant reevaluation. 

Inclusion is like health and fitness. You work at it all the time. It’s not a one-and-done thing. 

People who have been historically excluded need access to power

Biases thrive when one group holds an unequal amount of power over another group. Privileged men, for instance, have typically been gatekeepers to senior leadership positions in business, and have enjoyed decision-making roles in media. Invariably, their image has been projected in a favourable light as a result, while women have often been typecast as homebodies unable to cope with the fast-paced realities of the business world. 

To see long-lasting change, we need power to be more equally distributed across all groups in South Africa: be it over racial, gender or disability lines. 

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