Unconscious bias – the silent nemesis of diversity

At an industry event, Year 101: Women in law – the next 100 years, that took place earlier this year, a panel of senior female legal minds were asked “If you had $50,000 to spend on the development of women at your organisation, what would you spend it on?” Without missing a beat, McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel responded, “Unconscious bias training”.

Lifting the lid on unconscious bias is not only one way we can support the progression of women. It allows us to support all people in our workplace, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability or any other attribute.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal and able to influence behaviour.[1] As humans, we like to believe that we control our own thoughts, actions and decision making, but in reality, this is rarely the case.

Our unconscious minds rely on these perceptions and stereotypes to allow us to quickly process what is going on around us. But as we all know, efficiency doesn’t always equal effectiveness, and sometimes the shortcuts our brains take cause us to unconsciously discriminate against others.

A challenge for even the most progressive and inclusive

The issue with unconscious bias is that it can gazump even the most progressive, egalitarian and well-intentioned people. A Boston University study highlighted the staggering results of unconscious bias when participants were asked to solve the following riddle:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”. What relationship does the surgeon have with the boy?

While some participants scored ‘diversity’ points for suggesting the surgeon was the boy’s gay, second father, only 15% of participants suggested that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.[2]

While we can’t change our personal experiences and the norms we’ve learned, we can take a step back to challenge why we are making certain decisions and become more aware of the quick judgements we draw.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

When apparent in the workplace, unconscious bias may result in talented people being overlooked during recruitment or not being given equal opportunity for development and career progression. It may also mean that diverse voices are not heard and that key decisions are impaired.

One of the most significant issues the legal industry faces is the lack of diversity among key decision makers – those at the top of the legal profession. While there is a roughly even proportion of male to female solicitors[3], only 28.5% of partners in Australian law firms are women[4]. Beyond gender diversity in senior positions, the reality is even starker for people of colour and people with disabilities.

When largely homogenous groups hold much of the decision-making power, despite the best efforts of those decision-makers, unconscious bias is still at work. Our brains are hardwired towards patterns of familiarity and comfort, while difference is harder to accommodate.

Women may continue to be overlooked for demanding roles deemed incompatible with ‘family life’, older people may be disregarded for tasks requiring technological nous, and employees from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may be stigmatised by stereotypical values and behaviours.

The challenge at hand

The barriers that unconscious bias present to diversity in the legal profession are significant enough that in 2017 the Law Council of Australia made unconscious bias training modules available to all Australian legal professionals[5].

But beyond one-off training sessions, there needs to be an organisational commitment to addressing unconscious bias.

McCullough Robertson HR Director Louise Ferris said we need to start recognising and talking about instances where we see unconscious bias affecting our workplace.

“The challenge lies in creating an environment where we can talk about unconscious bias and call out examples of bias in decision making in a way that is productive, as opposed to being critical of the decision makers themselves,” Ms Ferris said.

“It’s a conversation about challenging the social and cultural norms that have been impressed on us for so long, about learning from our challenges and mistakes and about being better prepared to manage our own personal biases in the future.

“From a practical perspective, we have to work hard to actively challenge our unconscious biases. This may include taking a test to identify these biases and then putting ourselves in situations where these can be challenged. Once we recognise that we have biases we can take steps to self-evaluate and call ourselves out on, as well as taking steps such as ‘blinding’ ourselves when making decisions.”

“Unless we’re rolling out unconscious bias training and really having people look at every significant decision they make through that lens, then we will get people into the industry, but there will be attrition,” she said.Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel noted the importance of targeting unconscious bias to ensure organisations can attract and retain the best talent from the diverse pool of people coming into the industry.

Unfortunately reprogramming the human brain is not as simple as installing the latest iOS update, but unconscious bias training can teach people how to interrupt classical thought pathways and make behavioural changes.

‘Silent’ problems like unconscious bias are notoriously difficult to identify and even more difficult to address, but in recognising the issue, taking practical steps to educate and by having the confidence to call out bias in respectful and productive ways, perhaps we can begin to change the way individuals think, organisations operate and industries respond to an increasingly diverse workforce.

[1] https://events.cipd.co.uk/events/blog/unconscious-bias/

[2] http://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias

[3] https://www.lawsociety.com.au/advocacy-and-resources/advancement-of-women/gender-statistics

[4] https://www.afr.com/business/professional-services/why-women-lawyers-quit-the-partnership-track-20190702-p523ix

[5] https://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/media/media-releases/legal-profession-launching-unprecedented-national-initiative-to-counter-unconscious-bias