Challenging our unconscious bias

Speaking at Thursday night’s ‘Leading by Example: Diversity Panel’ event in Edinburgh, co-hosted by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and Morton Fraser’s Women’s Network, Tanya Castell – CEO and Chair of Changing the Chemistry, a peer-to-peer network which aims to increase diversity on boards – reminded the audience how we cannot underestimate the importance of our unconscious bias in the decisions we make about people, especially (but not exclusively) in recruitment. Unconscious bias is by its very nature difficult to identify, but strides forward are being made in this respect, and for an insight into your own unconscious bias, do take a look at the Harvard-based Project Implicit.

Project Implicit, as you will see when you visit their site, is an international collaboration between researchers who have a deep interest in implicit social cognition, which they describe as “thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control”. As the UK Equality Challenge Unit explains, “implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.” Project Implicit has a clear goal – to educate the public about hidden biases and, through encouraging visitors to the site to participate in challenges, to provide what is effectively a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet – data which can be used to develop further understandings about unconscious bias, and, by doing so, to help address it.

This latter point, of course, is key – the first step in any move towards change must always be to recognise that change is needed. In the case of unconscious bias, the very act of recognising that change is required demands, in many cases, a leap of the imagination and a swallowing of pride – very few of us, after all, like to admit that we are indeed biased in our engagement with others. Initiatives like Project Implicit help us – in a non-threatening and actually a very safe way – to understand ourselves better, and to see that by appreciating our own biases, we are in a better position to be able both to change ourselves and to highlight the need for change to others.

In our quest for a fairer, more balanced, less biased world, this is an obvious step to take. And we have not a moment to lose!


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