Understanding bias is essential in addressing inequalities

Written by Allison Johnstone on 21 November 2018 in Comment

Allison Johnstone, Training and Development Manager at Equate Scotland, on how businesses can promote equality, diversity and inclusion

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Allison Johnstone will be speaking at Holyrood's Improving Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace event


Over the last half decade the awareness of unconscious bias and its impact on equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace has continued to grow. We now know that the biases that we hold and are unaware of impact the decisions we make on a day to day basis. In light of this a great many organisations have delivered unconscious bias training to their staff members, particularly those involved in recruitment. It is now widely acknowledged that an understanding of bias is essential if we are to substantially address workplace and societal inequalities.

At an individual level, it is necessary for us to appreciate and acknowledge our own potential for bias, even if this is undoubtedly an uncomfortable thing to do. In accepting our own biases we can then explore how the systems that we have created have that same biases built into them. As Carl Jung said “we cannot change anything until we accept it”.

In its recent evaluation of unconscious bias training the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) noted that while more research is needed, unconscious bias training can be seen to raise awareness and reduce unconscious bias. However, the content and context of the training is important. It is essential that any training is robust enough to challenge us out of our comfort zone, and ensure that people leave with tangible ways of taking action, both for themselves and within their organisations. This is the foundation of all of Equate Scotland’s equality and diversity training; starting from the individual biases we have, to the societal influences around us and leading to the organisational level change employers can make.

Providing unconscious bias training as a one-off session is also insufficient. Equate Scotland recently ran a workshop in Aberdeen and about a quarter of the people attending were coming back on their own initiative as they recognised that reminders of this material are essential. When you are in the day to day of business, it’s all too easy for these issues to move down the priority list. I take my hat off to these people who want to ensure that it stays centre stage.

The business case for equality, diversity and inclusion is well documented. Just this year McKinsey demonstrated that those businesses that scored highly in terms of gender and ethnic diversity were more likely to outperform in terms of profitability and value creation. Tackling these issues not only helps individuals to thrive it also helps organisations and businesses to do the same.

Understanding our biases is a central part of this journey. Unconscious bias training is essential not just for those involved in recruitment, but for everyone across an organisation. After all that is where bias shows up. Our systems and culture operate across an organisation, decisions are made across an organisation and therefore unconscious bias training must follow suit.

The very reason that unconscious bias is essential across an organisation is also the reason why it isn’t a silver bullet. Our systems and culture are more nuanced and complex than a one-off training session. If it were that simple then I would happily be out of a job. If we want to truly impact on inclusion within our organisations we also have to embrace complex, holistic and perhaps uncomfortable solutions.

What does this look like? It means addressing the issue across an organisation, from marketing to finance, from senior management to product design. We all contribute to the culture of our organisations and we all have the potential to challenge the status quo. It looks like a strategic approach with leadership commitment and sponsorship. It looks like leaders within the organisation being vocal on equality, diversity and inclusion as a business priority. It looks like quantifying and measuring change with accountability. It looks like a new cultural norm, where conversations about inequity and bias are open and supported, and ally-ship is understood and recognised. It is when we take deep dives into the systems to uncover exactly where bias occurs and take bold action to create equity.

A great example of a more nuanced approach is that of Harvey Mudd College in California who have increased the percentage of women computer science majors from 15 per cent to 55 per cent. How did they do this?

  • they changed the nature of the introductory course to make it more accessible
  • they considered the use of gendered language in course modules
  • they ensured students worked with others of similar levels of experience
  • they restructured the curriculum and connected women students to a wider network outside the college
  • they encouraged early placements and internships and provided gentle encouragement to students to stick with their studies
  • they changed the gender balance within their staff team
  • they implemented equality, diversity and inclusion training across the college community

In all this work we need to acknowledge that complex problems need nuanced solutions and while unconscious bias training is undoubtedly an essential part of this jigsaw, it is only one part. We need businesses and organisations to pursue multiple interventions and be bold in their approach. Only then will we see the change we need across the labour market.

Allison Johnstone is Training and Development Manager at Equate Scotland. She will be speaking at Holyrood's event on Improving Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace. Join us on 29 November to be part of the conversation by following the link to secure your place.

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