If equality and dignity at work issues are not handled correctly it can create serious problems for an organisation, including poor morale and employee relations, high turnover of staff, and reputation damage that can take years to undo. Put plainly, discrimination cases do not need to reach tribunal to affect the bottom line.
Last week, we delivered a seminar on equality and diversity to the executive board of a London-based market research company. They were already in good shape, with rigorous recruitment policies, HR processes and reporting systems in place to make sure they were acting fairly as an employer, and protected from discrimination claims.
Why did they feel the training was necessary? Many of the group were worried that the collegial office atmosphere meant that close-to-the-knuckle jokes were rife, and they wanted our help in retaining a lively working atmosphere whilst making sure all of their employees felt safe and confident at work.
The training session went well. The group - mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly male - all cringed in the right places at our chosen video clips, and quickly corrected our list of gendered job titles and politically-insensitive language. We agreed that the solution to their worries was to lead the change themselves; that they should use Non-Violent Communication methods to make helpful suggestions as to how language and humour should be adapted within the office environment. Simple, straightforward; a pat on the back everyone; we’re a discrimination-free zone!
The session wrap-up introduced the concept of implicit bias - sometimes known as unconscious bias - which is a concept I was already familiar with. Inventor of the term, psychology professor Patricia Devine says:
‘There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice, yet they are vulnerable to habits of mind.’
She has shown that it is possible for people to act in prejudicial ways, despite being strongly opposed to the prejudices in principle, because of views held in their unconscious. In essence, whilst we might have a highly-regulated sense of what is right and fair, our unconscious can still absorb prejudices and make us act on them.
This was an interesting concept to me, and one I was keen to challenge. I consider myself intuitive and I tend to trust my gut instincts; my unconscious and I are happy bedfellows. I have worked hard to know myself well; there are no prejudices hanging in my closet.
Research led me to a series of tests hosted online by Harvard University. Created by a number of high-profile academics, the assessments - known as Implicit Association Tests (IAT) - aim to identify attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. Specifically, it measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). Fascinatingly, the tests reveal unconscious associations that may be totally unknown to the test-taker.
The first test I took identifies biases around gender. It was obvious to me that this test was designed to uncover a belief that a woman’s place is in the home, or that men are stronger and more capable. I felt immediately confident that my long-held feminist beliefs are also deeply rooted in my subconscious; both of my parents worked to support my family, my female friends are just as professionally successful as my male friends, and I believe men and women are equally capable of accomplishments both at work and at home. Right?!
Quickly, my results revealed a strong automatic association between Male and Career, and Female and Family. An automatic association! In spite of the books I’ve read, the scores of capable women I’ve worked for and with, and the efforts I have made, my unconscious still believes - strongly - that work is a man’s place.
The very same stereotypes I have myself faced - the board room of men looking to me to serve the tea, the interviewers eyeballing my ring finger - are being reinforced by my own unconscious. I have argued with my colleagues about why sexism is still an issue in the UK… and yet! And yet. I don’t believe these things. But somewhere, in my mind’s most influential chambers, I do.
The second test I took assesses the biases around lighter and darker faces. Again, I felt confident that this test wouldn't reveal any ugly, latent associations, and yet, my results show a moderate automatic preference for light-skinned faces over dark-skinned faces. I am ashamed that fifteen years of living in London has not undone the associations forged by an upbringing in a Brexit-voting hometown.
Finally, I took a third test, which assesses associations with ‘thin and fat people’. By now, sure my unconscious was beyond redemption, I was convinced this test would reveal yet another gruesome truth, so I was relieved to find I have no automatic preference for thin people or fat people. Small comfort.
It was a devastating set of truths: my own unconscious is a misogynist, it thinks me less capable than my male colleagues, it is suspicious of faces darker than mine. My unconscious is steering me towards beliefs and behaviours I had no understanding of.
My friends and I have discussed that Generation Z are growing up in a world that questions automatic biases; they are aware of the power of pronouns, of why forcing our daughters to play with toy hoovers and telling our sons to ‘man up’ is reinforcing damaging stereotypes that don’t serve us as a society.
But is it too late for me? Is the damage irreparable? Suddenly it isn’t enough to call myself liberal, open, compassionate. My unconscious is where the work needs to be done.
If there was ever a case for diversity training in the workplace, this is it. In terms of business, unconscious bias affects whom we hire, whom we promote, in whom we invest and whom we trust. If you can train your recruitment panel out of their biases, you improve your chances of selecting the best person for the role, regardless of their age, gender, race, sexuality, and any number of irrelevant factors. What’s more, you’re more likely to stay out of an Employment Tribunal.
I urge you to take the Harvard University tests, and understand your own biases; I would love to hear about your findings. Despite what we think, they do show us where there is work to do. Is it time we invested in diversity training, and addressed our unconscious biases?
Integrated Resources runs training and workshops to improve your working environment and business performance. Get in touch with our team of consultants today to find out how we can help your business outsource HR headaches.