How biased are you really?

Written by: Dr Liz Alexander Posted: 11/10/2017

bias illoThink you’re open-minded and don’t discriminate against other people? Well maybe you should think again, says Dr Liz Alexander, author, educator and book consultant to senior executives and business owners worldwide

What is there left to say about the business benefits of diversity? After all, as research sponsors Bloomberg, Deutsche Bank and EY point out in a report by the Center for Talent Innovation, a diverse workforce ‘drives serial innovation’. This in turn helps increase market share and expansion into new markets. In other words, diversity contributes to the Holy Grail of business growth. 

Less well understood are the reasons why diversity initiatives fail. Yet an article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘Why subtle bias is so often worse than blatant discrimination’, offers a clue. Because while society actively legislates against blatant prejudices, our unconscious biases continue to act like marsh gas – both imperceptible and pernicious. 

And don’t think you’re immune. According to Tiffany Jana, co-author of Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences, “We’re wired for bias. Our brains are inherently lazy. We don’t want to spend the energy to do the hard thinking, so if we can take a short cut – in the form of stereotyping – we will.”

This helps to explain why so many people automatically judge the overweight as lazy, or believe that folks with a Scouse, Brummie or Geordie accent are less well educated. Or even, when hearing that someone’s a Muslim, equate that with ‘terrorist’.

Until they’re acknowledged and actively guarded against, such unconscious assumptions will continue to have real consequences in the workplace, and have an impact on who’s recruited and promoted – even who earns more money. 

Research findings show, for example, that blonde women earn higher salaries than their brunette, redheaded or black-haired counterparts. Plus, as a study featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology reported: ‘A person can earn an extra $789 per year for every inch above average height they are’. 

Indeed, a bias for height is borne out by the fact that CEOs tend to be taller on average than the rest of the population. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: ‘In the US, about 14.5 per cent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 per cent.’ 

Then there’s research conducted by University of Texas economics professor Dr Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful, which found that good-looking people tend to earn considerably more than their less attractive co-workers. 

But it’s not just physical attributes that help perpetuate unconscious bias, says Carla Benest, Counsel and Head of the Jersey employment practice at law firm Mourant Ozannes. She says Google’s disappointing diversity statistics – despite spending $265 million on a two-year programme to reduce unconscious bias – “weren’t really surprising given that they had opened a new building in California whose conference facilities were all named after historical male figures”.

This thoughtless act helped perpetuate the unconscious assumption – rife in Silicon Valley – that men make the best engineers. 

Them or us

The wide range of areas in which we’re biased makes it extremely hard to pin down any single cause. As the following example illustrates, bias is so involuntary and instinctive that it can even be directed at one’s own demographic – contradicting the assumption that we’re biased because we fear ‘the other’ or we naturally support those who are ‘like us’. 

During the 2016 American presidential campaigns, Jordan Klepper, a comedian working on late-night US TV programme The Daily Show, went out to interview Trump supporters. Having asked one woman “Can a woman be president?”, he was told: “The presidency is a man’s job. A female has more hormones… hot flashes. She could start a war in 10 seconds.”

It was only when Klepper pointed out: “Haven’t all wars been started by men?” that she offered a delayed and timid “Yes”. 

Such stereotyping relates to Tiffany Jana’s point – it saves people from having to think too hard. Which is why the first step to reducing bias is to encourage greater awareness. “I conduct discrimination training, and the first question I ask any group is how biased they are. Typically, nobody raises their hands,” says Carla Benest. 

The problem, she adds, is likely to be bigger in smaller jurisdictions like the Channel Islands. “People here are more familiar with each other and come from similar economic backgrounds and educational establishments. Unconscious bias is so limitless and broad that people need to take active steps to become aware of what their potential prejudices are.”

One way to boost that awareness, suggests Jana, is to take Harvard’s online Implicit Association Test. This covers 14 different topics that reveal, for example, most people’s automatic preference for straight, as opposed to gay, people; thin people over those who are overweight; and the tendency to link ‘female’ with ‘family’, and ‘male’ with ‘career’. 

Being human

But awareness alone isn’t enough. Nor is an eagerness to use technology to eradicate the problem of bias in recruitment and promotion. 

Cyrille Joffre, Chief Technology and Information Officer at telecommunications company Sure, describes one experiment in which recruiters reviewed identical CVs and selected more applicants with white-sounding names than black-sounding names. “If an algorithm learns what a ‘good’ hire looks like based on that kind of biased data, it will make biased hiring decisions,” says Joffre (see box).  

Accepting that we’re biased doesn’t mean organisations should embrace positive discrimination by hiring or promoting people according to some artificial quota, says Carla Benest.  It’s about recognising the areas of diversity that you want to increase and then focusing on generating a culture in which everyone can openly discuss their biases and feel free to call others out when they see it happening. 

“Training is beneficial, but it needs to be carefully thought through,” says Benest. “It’s not just about highlighting biases, but helping people understand the consequences, so they can identify how best to manage and deal with them.”

Tiffany Jana agrees. “Adding diversity into a situation isn’t going to solve problems; it’s going to create new challenges. Because when you bring in people from different walks of life, you’re shaking up the status quo, which increases conflict and tension. 

“But while a unified experience gives us less to rub up against, exposing people to differences helps get us to a less biased place and opens up perspectives. As such, organisations need to provide reinforcing structures so that people know what they’re aiming for and why it’s important to reduce bias,” she says. 
In the meantime, there’s one action everyone can take, suggests Jana. “The busier you are, the more your brain relies on unconscious judgements and stereotypes, which is where human bias does its worst damage. Slowing down and systematising makes it easier to do this kind of deeply introspective work.”

That includes being willing to recognise that we are all imperfect and hard wired for bias. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a function of being human.

Programming bias

Despite business magnate Elon Musk’s assertion that intelligent robots “will be able to do everything better than us”, don’t expect them to eradicate our innate biases any time soon.

On the contrary, as algorithms have become increasingly more complex (Facebook alone requires over 61 million lines of code), it’s easier for bias to creep in, explains Cyrille Joffre, Chief Technology and Information Officer at telecommunications firm Sure. 

“At their core, algorithms mimic human decision-making – they are, in part, our opinions embedded in code. They are typically trained to learn from past successes, which may embed existing biases. For example, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that Google’s online advertising once showed an ad for high-income jobs to men much more often than it did to women.” 

Legal safeguards don’t always prevent this, he adds. “Algorithms used by insurance companies, while not allowed by law to label gender, could still make a decision based on someone’s name, to determine whether they are male or female.”  Which is how preferential treatment often occurs. 

On the flipside, artificial intelligence and machine learning is being leveraged to help counter unconscious bias. “Writers often unwittingly sprinkle copy with keywords or phrases containing cues that can dissuade certain candidates from applying for jobs – like ‘coding ninja’ – that dampen the interest of older candidates and women,” Joffre points out. 

“Platforms such as Textio flag potentially problematic words, suggesting alternatives that will perform more fairly. Meanwhile, Talent Sonar draws on five essential hiring practices to help counter unconscious bias during the hiring process.”


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