You and your colleague Desmond are working late, so you order some delivery for dinner. You take a quick break when it arrives to eat and chat.
You talk about the news for a while. Then, Desmond changes the subject to a meeting he had with another colleague, Cynthia.
“She booked a meeting with me first thing Tuesday morning. When I get there, she’s sitting with Deb from HR. So right away, I feel like I’m being ambushed. But I sit down and ask her what’s going on.”
You know Cynthia a little bit. You’re not sure where this is going.
“Cynthia starts reading from notes. She tells me how I’ve been giving preferential treatment to others. She thinks I’ve acted in ways that have excluded her on projects that could have helped her career. Her big point is this: because she speaks English with a strong accent, I’ve been treating her unfairly.”
“Wow.” You take a bite from your burrito bowl. “And Deb from HR is right there?”
“Yeah! When Cynthia finishes, Deb says that Cynthia is not making a formal complaint yet. But HR recommends that I take Unconscious Bias training. I felt a little cornered, so I agreed.
But you know what? I didn’t do all the training I did to get accused of bias. I wouldn’t have produced the results I have if I had ‘unconscious biases’. And even if I have some, they’re unconscious, so what can I do?!”
You’ve learned a bit about unconscious bias in diversity and inclusion training. How do you respond?
Desmond appreciates your empathy for him.
He signs up for the training, and keeps talking to you about bias as the lessons progress. These conversations are a good – but uncomfortable – refresher for you, too.
The Best Option
Unconscious biases are pre-existing attitudes and beliefs we hold about others. Without knowing, they affect the way we behave towards others. They are the result of shortcuts our brains take to manage complex situations. These shortcuts can be helpful when we’re doing a familiar task, like driving a car. But when applied to people, they can lead to harmful negative stereotypes. These stereotypes often run counter to our declared beliefs about equality.
The good news is that we can shift our biases. Experts say that prejudicial behaviours toward others are habits that we break. But we have to be willing to put in the effort.
These efforts include:
- Being vigilant and recognizing when our bias is activated, then changing our behaviour.
- Recalling positive memories that counter negative stereotypes
- Practicing empathy by putting ourselves in a stereotyped person’s shoes
Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. L. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1267–1278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.06.003