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Working with Biases

Have you ever experienced someone making an assumption about you?  Can you remember what it felt like?  What if their assumption was based entirely on your gender, race, age, disability or other similar biases?  Something you could do nothing about and yet which resulted in you being considered less favourably (in comparison to others).

In reality, this happens to people every day as a result of bias (conscious or unconscious).  It happened to me many times when I started out in my career. Significantly, as a young female engineer working in the construction sector.  I have spent considerable hours exploring, learning, and trying to understand why it occurs and how to enact positive change. 

What we can do about it, involves us taking action and firstly looking in the mirror at ourselves. Then exploring what others can do.  Here are some thoughts from my own journey to start you on your way.

What is a bias?

Let’s start by defining what bias is?  A bias is an opinion, feeling or influence that strongly favours or prejudices one side or group in a series (Oxford English Dictionary). 

Biases are developed to enable our brains to process and filter the millions of pieces of information we all receive every moment. Since our brains do not have the capacity to consciously process them simultaneously.  In other words, biases are human nature.  Consequently, the first step is accepting that biases are inevitable, and we cannot stop our biases.  What we can do is develop our consciousness around the actions and decisions we might make based on our biases. 

The idea is that if we develop our self-awareness through reflection, feedback and critical thinking, we can make better choices. This has been the foundation of unconscious bias and diversity, equity and inclusion training.  We can foster our self-awareness in many ways, here are a few ideas:

  • Have lunch with a total stranger and really listen to their story. Also, listen to the many times you look to confirm your assumptions. E.g. I knew this person would be interesting based on how they are dressed (confirmation bias).
  • Read a book by an author you are not familiar with; on a subject, you know little about. Really try to walk in their shoes and hear their perspective as you read – safeguarding against affinity bias.
  • Watch a historical programme or the film “12 angry men” to explore how the thoughts of others can influence decisions and people’s actions. Deepening your understanding of influence in interpersonal relations and reflecting on where biases may appear.

How can we benefit from others?

We often benefit from others’ help, to show us our biases as we may not be fully aware of them and their influences on us.  Encouraging and promoting diverse views or perceptions is one way we can be consciously inclusive.  This entails deeply reflective work. It forces us to re-examine our motives, values, considerations and criteria in our own decision-making and actions.  It will give us more awareness of how and where our own choices and biases may play a part.  And, when we understand and know more, we can choose more consciously in the next similar situation. 

Developing trust in the workplace and/or amongst others is the prerequisite to psychological safety.  Psychological safety is a term used to describe a kind of high trust environment. The kind where people can call out undesirable behaviours or the consequences of certain actions.  It takes a trusted team for us to be able to call out when and why we act in error based on our own biases.  Subsequently, trust facilitates us being able to discuss the impact. Even if unintended, of the actions or decisions of us and others in favouring or prejudicing one course of action over another. 

Finally, allyship is the concept, where we support, enable, and facilitate those marginalised or in minority groups. To have equality, a level playing field and fight against privilege, power and socio-economic circumstances.  People often ask what it takes to be a good ally.  In truth, it takes learning, unlearning and relearning from and with those we act as allies. 

The power of words

Sometimes the smallest change can have a big lasting impact.  For instance, I still remember the first person who told me I would be a good engineer, decades later and even though my career has long since evolved.  Those words still mean something to me. Even remembering them now, as they strengthen my confidence to realise my dream to be an engineer.    

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