Unconscious bias: why we all need to be aware of it

On a recent trip to South Africa (I know, lucky us!) I was reminded about unconscious bias: this is the bias towards or against some things or types of people that we all have and exhibit unconsciously. I suspect most of us think “Not me, I’m not biased, I’m really open-minded” but I’m afraid it is just part of human nature and the first step in addressing it is to admit that it exists. For a more detailed explanation, watch The Royal Society’s 3 minute animation about unconscious bias designed by the leading scientist Professor Uta Frith.

In South Africa, as mentioned in ‘Julian’s’ blog post, we visited Robben Island, which was a maximum security prison during South Africa’s apartheid years. It was where many political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated.  Despite it being a warm, sunny day when we visited, it was pretty bleak – the island was very windswept and the prison buildings bare and comfortless – a world away from bustling Cape Town which was visible across the water.

Our guide on the bus tour of the island was a really interesting young man. During the apartheid years all South Africans were classified  into 3 categories: either Bantu/ black, coloured or white. Our guide explained that part of the way apartheid worked was not just through overt laws maintaining the system but through generating and perpetuating stereotypes associated with each category. Our guide would have been classified as ‘coloured’ and he explained that coloured people were stereotyped as thieves. These stereotypes have been remarkably persistent so that, even though apartheid no longer exists legally, it remains in people minds and is exhibited through unconscious bias. The example he gave was that when he visits a shopping mall he is quite likely to be followed by the security guards, even though (and this is a key point) the guard frequently has darker skin that him.

This is the incredible thing about unconscious bias – it can actually work against people like ourselves, even if we are in a group that is discriminated against. So, women may unwittingly be biased against recruiting other women (I think this may be why The Royal Society has looked into the issue of unconscious bias – their nominating committees, despite having lots of women on them, were still not putting enough women forward for membership). This is because we tend to be unconsciously biased towards the powerful. And this is why we must be aware of unconscious bias: if we keep being biased towards powerful groups, existing power imbalances will just perpetuate; those without a voice will be kept silent, and talent and potential from those in underrepresented groups will continue to be overlooked.

If you want to see what unconscious biases you have, try taking some of the Harvard bias tests – they are free, only take about 10 minutes and contribute towards a large research project.











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