Don’t ignore that elephant in the room again!


Jumping on the coat tails of a previous blog I wrote on unconscious bias, I’ve been networking with some of my peers at a recent #truLondon event and listening to their thoughts and opinions on the topic of bias. It has a very real impact on the success of my video interviewing business in terms of how my clients think about their video interview candidates. But it seems to be a big ‘ask’ of human beings to just put their biases to one side for a moment. Does it even make sense to ask them to try?

From the discussions above, we all agreed that the word bias conjures up all sorts of negative connotations in people’s minds but in order to establish and maintain equality and diversity in the work place, we need to approach bias in a positive manner. As we are well and truly into the 21st century, we all have more opportunity than our foremothers and fathers, to change our behaviours for the better. That’s not to say we are capable of just dumping our own biases like a hot potato, but possibly some distancing of ourselves from them might be the key.

Dr Gavin Weeks, has kindly given his time to provide some insight from a psychological point of view on how bias works and the effect it has in certain areas. He also discusses some of the studies done to raise awareness of bias. (Please note, these are the personal opinions and explanations of Dr Gavin Weeks and not those of SABMiller, his current employer).  Weeks explains below:

There are two key psychological processes that are crucial to understanding gender bias:tumblr_nctkf4PM5V1tlikt0o2_r1_540

  1. Prejudices are the result of evolved cognitive processes – we learn by relating, which creates an ever-growing network. New things are added to the network but don’t get removed, even if they are subsequently demonstrated to be false or inaccurate. In the case of gender bias, notice what your mind does when you complete this sentence: “a woman’s place is in the ……..”. I would be willing to guess that there are a few very common answers, and these will come to mind automatically and very quickly, even if we don’t agree with them.


  1. Humans in general have a very strong tendency to avoid discomfort. This often works in the outside world and is a crucial survival mechanism: humans physically run away from things that they anticipate to be painful. This becomes toxic when we try, metaphorically, to run away from painful thoughts or emotions. In technical terms, this is referred to as ‘experiential avoidance’.


It is extremely difficult to remove or eliminate thoughts or patterns of thinking. There’s plenty of research that demonstrates this (a short review of the work of Daniel Wegner, a social psychologist from Harvard, is available here). In short, if you tell people “don’t think about a pink elephant”, you bring that pink elephant right into the room. Biases about gender roles have a long and deep history – we see stereotyped roles before we can even talk and they get reinforced throughout life, in our educational experiences, at work and through the media. Put in other words, the imbalances that we see have the effect of reinforcing our understanding of ‘the way things are’. So, even when we know that our biases are unhelpful or restrictive, they get reinforced by what we see around us. To eliminate them, therefore, is virtually impossible.

Put the above together with experiential avoidance and you have a toxic combination – giving people the message that certain ways of thinking are wrong and should be eliminated is likely to bring up feelings of guilt or frustration, particularly when people have the experience that this actually isn’t possible. People avoid in different ways, including through disengagement, blaming or denial of responsibility, none of which is likely to result in the actual behavioural changes that are necessary to improve gender balance or equity.

All is not lost, however. Some experimental work in other areas where prejudice is a problem (such as race and mental health stigma) has shown that there are effective strategies to reduce it (a good summary, by Masuda and colleagues, is available here). These employ techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Training (or ACT); a method of psychological coaching that is grounded in the two processes mentioned above. ACT training programs include the following elements:


  1. Teaching people the nature of thinking, and how prejudices are the inevitable consequences of normal human learning.
  2. We can learn to recognise the presence of thoughts and beliefs that, when they take control of behaviour, are unhelpful for achieving the kind of life or society that we want.
  3. When unhelpful thoughts arise, we can teach people to stand back from them so that they don’t take control of behaviour.
  4. We can learn to act in line with values without having to change or eliminate unhelpful thinking. Instead, the focus is on commitment to important behavioural changes despite the thoughts or emotions that sometimes show up.


The outcome of this work is referred to as “psychological flexibility”. The research findings regarding the effect of this training in other areas of prejudice are enlightening. In two particular studies ACT was compared to an education approach to address stigma related to mental health problems (Masuda and colleagues, 2007: full text here) and racial prejudice (Lillis and Hayes, 2007: abstract here). In both cases, ACT training led to significant reductions in prejudice and, in the case of racial prejudice, positive intent to change behaviour. Crucially, the education approach only had an effect in one study (regarding mental health) and only in the case of participants who were already psychologically flexible (that is, they already took their thoughts lightly and were less inclined to try to avoid them).

In scientific endeavours there is an overused phrase: “more work needs to be done”. This is the case with gender bias. That said, we can expect the principles to hold: teaching people that their biases are a normal part of being human, to notice them but not act on them and, instead, do what is important to them, and we can expect positive change. On the other hand, teaching people that their biases are wrong and to be eliminated, and we potentially set ourselves up to fail.

Note that none of this is about denying the importance of changing organisations and structures to improve diversity and challenge biases. Rather, it is about choosing to change whilst accepting that some things won’t change quickly. If you think about it, the most effective way to change opinions in the long-term is the actual demonstration of a better alternative. Remember, our systems of thinking constantly adapt: so whilst I might never unlearn my ending of the phrase “a woman’s place is the…..” I, we, our children will continue to experience its fallacy.

Weeks sums it up quite nicely for me. Change happens slowly for most things but the key is to start making the changes. Leading by example and showing staff an alternative view in a positive manner will get you one step closer to making that equality policy a reality.

Any thoughts?

  1. Stephen O’Donnell 1 year ago

    In my experience self awareness is absolutely vital to combating unconscious bias and learned preferences.

    Recruitment is all about discrimination; that is to say discriminating suitable candidates from bad ones, and the very best from those which are suitable. Not all discrimination is unfair.

    Being able to have a long hard look at yourself, and examining with logic the reasons why you may feel a bias towards or against someone, is the best place to start. Whilst unconscious bias can often be explained by your personal experience, it will also have been shaped by your upbringing, and therefore have no logical grounding. I might assume certain things about a person with the name Susan based on someone I knew at primary school, or may have an aversion to Jewish people because of the people around me when I was young (I don’t and didn’t).

    Being aware of those biases, enable each person to break them down and ultimately set them aside.

    In recruitment we all bring something to the interview room that will affect how we view the candidate, but it is vital that we interview ourselves before we begin to judge others.

    • Christine 1 year ago

      Thanks for your comments Stephen. As professional recruiters, we all need to ensure we are able to observe our own prejudices and where possible, leave them at the door. This is true of hiring managers and HR professionals as well. Often it’s just that little bit of awareness that brings about a positive result in terms of making the right decisions not snap decisions about individuals when recruiting.