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Turning bias and stigma on its head

Can you spot stigma... then challenge and defeat it? Our experts explain why stigma exists and how to curb its negative impact.

Turning bias and stigma on its head
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  • Staff Reporter
  • May 16, 2019
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People are stigmatised for all reasons in the workplace, leading to biased  and unbiased decision making against them. Those stigmatised will also look to change their behaviour to ‘cover’ what they are stigmatised for. We spoke to three experts about spotting bias and challenging stigma.

What is ‘unconscious bias’?

One of the most difficult kinds of bias for organisations and individuals to tackle is unconscious bias. Essentially, biases are shortcuts our brains use to make quick decisions.

These shortcuts are influenced by a plethora of factors such as the media, our experiences, politicians or the schools we went to – underlying each bias will be a host of illogical stereotypes, which can be harmful.

When biases are unconscious, we are not aware of the shortcut being made. We like to think our brains are sophisticated pieces of machinery, but at the end of the day the human brain was developed thousands of years ago at a time when we needed to know who was in our in-group or out-group in order to survive.

In the modern-day workplace this can translate to our implicit desire to still be part of an ‘in-group’. However, when we live and work in global settings these biases no longer serve us well.

A huge problem with how a lot of organisations tackle unconscious bias is in thinking that once people are aware of it, it magically goes away. This simply isn’t the case. Bias can manifest in many ways; even a positive bias towards someone can be damaging when we gravitate to someone to the detriment of another.

So how do organisations tackle unconscious bias? There’s a bevy of unconscious bias training out there but awareness training on its own is ineffective.

One of the most impactful things organisations can do to address bias is to encourage people to be more considered in their behaviours, asking simple questions in everyday situations: ‘Where can I be more inclusive? How can I begin to think more inclusively, and empathise better with someone who might be different to me? What actions can I personally take to avoid taking mental shortcuts?’

Suki Sandhu OBE is founder and CEO of Involve

Tech’s role in linking competencies and roles towards objectivity

The adage ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is especially compelling when confronting bias in the workplace.

Of utmost importance are objectivity, transparency and fairness, all of which are vastly improved when you have data to back them up. But more often than is acceptable in today’s digital age, I see clients wrestling with laborious spreadsheets and presentations to tackle the issue. This is where technology comes into its own.

Not only can it crunch huge amounts of data, it can visualise it in more imaginative ways to reveal unseen patterns of bias. Armed with knowledge, our clients are empowered to take action. An example I often come across is the intrinsic bias in pay gaps, by gender, ethnicity and cultural differences (continued after stats).

How are lesser-qualified individuals able to demand higher pay than their more capable colleagues, purely because subjectivity on performance and potential creates unreliable opinions as data points?

This can be solved by robust data that tracks competencies, ensuring that every individual is assessed and rewarded fairly for their abilities. This is one of many instances of bias that can be overcome with technology, data and analysis, plus the will to make change happen in partnership with our colleagues in HR.

Rupert Morrison is CEO of Concentra Analytics

Accountants and stigmatisation – more needs to be done

After several years helping accountants to address the problem of bias, my experience is that of an industry-wide failure to recognise the full extent of the problem. For example, many firms have said a great deal in support of gender diversity, in the apparent belief that addressing one form of bias is to address them all. The reality, however, is that this is simply not true.

The truth is that while many firms are quite happy to speak about gender bias, their total unwillingness to face the problem of racial and other forms of bias is woefully apparent.

Large firms will often congratulate themselves on the fact that around a quarter of their graduate recruits are BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic). However, we mustn’t forget that around half of all accountancy students are BAME, which shines a very different light on the quarter that have made it into the industry.

The only way to foster real change is for firms to be honest about their own discrepancies, before they turn their focus elsewhere.

Professor Binna Kandola is co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola

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