Are you sure you’re not suffering from unconscious bias?
"My business partner and the co-founder of the company is female. She is every bit my equal in the company and in the design of the products and services we are rolling out. She has to fight twice as hard, and for twice as long as me for anything. Nine out of 10 emails to the company are to me, even when replying to a query or question raised by her. We play meeting 'tag,' because the technical questions invariably get asked to me. I then defer to her (as she is far more competent than I on many of the technical aspects we deal with) only for the next question related to the answer she gave to be asked to me again."
The remarks above are from a segment of a post by a man on LinkedIn, a professional networking site. They are a powerful example of unconscious bias in the workplace, prevalent everywhere in the world. Research works in the fields of neuroscience and social psychology have helped in developing the understanding on this concept. Unconscious biases are formed through how we socialise, the experiences we go through in life, and the representation of different groups in the media. These experiences act as social filters, through which we make assessments of and judgements about people around us. Human beings have a natural tendency to put individuals into social categories. These categories are often based on visual cues such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, height, body type, etc. We also categorise based on social backgrounds, job roles, religious identities or political affiliations.
Social psychologist Dr Jennifer Eberhardt and her team at Stanford University have explored the roots and implications of unconscious bias. Through experiments, she has shown how social conditions can influence the function of our brain to determine our responses to other people. For example, if we are constantly exposed to women as primary school teachers or receptionists, or men as engineers and organisational leaders, these associations become wired into the human brain.
A common form of unconscious bias is affinity bias, which has an impact on organisational decision-making processes. This includes how managers hire and promote staff. This can lead to limited creativity, diversity, and inclusivity in the workplace. Unconscious bias can also affect collaboration between employees, as well as prevent innovation and productivity. In milliseconds, people judge whether somebody is like us and belongs to our "inner circle"—those whom we usually favour. Men might favour men, while women might favour women. However, people can belong to different groups, and they like to belong to the "in-crowds" that are powerful. This could mean a woman favouring a man over a woman.
In Bangladesh, we witness different types of unconscious biases; people get constantly judged based on age, gender, skin tone, height, weight, ethnicity, religion, disability, marital status, etc—and insensitive jokes and comments based on these biases are very common. In many cases, people who are victims of such biases—and they might even know when they are—may do the same thing to others without even realising it, or recognising what kind of impact their behaviour may have on other individuals. For example, a woman who gets upset about a sexist comment may also carry stereotyped perceptions about people of indigenous groups, without even understanding that that, too, is a form of bias.
Unconscious biases against various groups lead to discriminatory attitude and behaviour, violation of rights, stress, and an adverse effect on people's well-being. I have known people whose self-esteem was severely affected because of the negative comments they were subjected to because of their skin colour. I have noticed how highly capable professional women have been dismissed as being "aggressive," while men exhibiting the same behaviour have been praised for their leadership qualities.
Unconscious bias may continue to dominate our future and affect various aspects of our lives if we don't address it soon. Gina Neff, professor at the department of sociology in the University of Oxford, has been asking questions about bias and the balance of power in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. In a study report titled "Alexa, does AI have gender?", she talked to Ruth Abrahams about the challenges we face in combining futuristic solutions with values of trust, openness and equality. Alexa, Amazon's voice-controlled assistant, has the voice of a woman. The report states: "As children and adults shout instructions, questions and demands at Alexa, what messages are being reinforced? Professor Neff asks if this is how we would secretly like to treat women." In the realm of law or finance, AI assistance is coded as male. This gives the male computer voice a context of authority and professionalism, the research article says.
AI is about algorithms, and the bias of the person involved in developing the algorithms will continue to influence the products. This could be addressed by engaging a diverse team (comprised of members of different genders, races, ethnicities, etc) in designing AI. Human beings may go to Mars and establish the same prejudiced, discriminatory and unjust system of the present world if we are not thoughtful enough to eradicate such biases.
The first step in combating unconscious bias is to be aware of the various types of biases that we have. We should examine our own assumptions and challenge ourselves when we begin to make stereotyped associations. Do we assume that senior staff members are not good at computer skills, or all young people are wasting their time online? Do you make fun of someone when they speak in the dialect of a particular district?
Each of us can speak up against jokes, comments and behaviours that reinforce stereotypes in our families, workplaces and social settings. In interviews, panel members can deliberately slow down decision-making, reconsider reasons for decisions, question stereotypes and monitor each other for unconscious bias.
I am reminded of a few lines by London-based Nigerian poet Ben Okri: "Each new era begins within/It is an inward event/With unsuspected possibilities/For inner liberation/We could use the new era/To clean our eyes/To see the world differently/To see ourselves more clearly/Only free people can make a free world." We must free ourselves from unconscious biases if we are to create an inclusive society, where all men, women and children will be treated with respect and dignity.
Laila Khondkar is an international development worker.