Unconscious bias uncovered

Unconscious bias is a hot topic and one that is being thrashed in the human resources arena at present. But although a great talking point, how many companies actually ‘walk the walk’ and run unconscious bias awareness training? For that matter, how many individuals in the HR field challenge their own behaviours when it comes to bias, and set a benchmark for others to follow? For me, becoming aware of your own biases is a personal responsibility and one that only you as an individual can realise. Although other people can point out your so-called inadequacies (or biases), this does not have the same impact as self-realisation.

Our belief systems drive our biases whether we like it or not – conscious or unconscious. Bias is a human trait. No other animal on the planet has these, and they are programmed into us from birth and sometimes collectively from generations before. They are there to help us process information fast and efficiently. But they also induce autopilot, which remarkably, we use to process even the stuff we don’t know about, and we do this with little awareness of the results or the consequences. Take Facebook as an example. How many fake posts on ‘news events’ are made daily on Facebook? I wager literally thousands. And we like them, share them and believe them. The decision to share and like these posts without corroboration of the information is not only supported by false information but leads to false programming. There is also an element of sensationalism that adds to the situation which we all seem to be attracted to. Posts on Donald Trump have often been wrong but people are happy to add fuel to the fire without checking out the facts first. Regardless of whether you like Trump or not, there isn’t really a positive outcome that can be had from spreading fake information about someone.

KristinPressnerTEDxGetting back to the reason I’m writing this blog… it is because of one brave woman in the global HR industry who decided to ‘come out’ about her own biases. In a previous blog, we discuss just how toxic biases can be and how the clear majority of us will shy away from ever admitting them because somewhere deep down we think we will be looked upon negatively if we bring them to the surface. I had a bit of dialogue on LinkedIn with Kristen Pressner, Global Head of Human Resources for Roche Diagnostics about why she decided to put her own biases out on the TEDx stage for all to see. To some this might seem ‘career risky’, but all her career Kristen has been a champion for equality, promoting the concept of leadership and more to the point, women leaders. She is a working Mum and the sole provider financially for her four children and her husband. Her husband stays at home and cares for the kids. She clearly felt she was one of the ‘good guys’ as she puts it, and it is her job to be unbiased. But one day she had what I interpreted as an awakening of sorts, where she realised she had an unconscious bias in the most shocking place of all.

The situation was quite simple. She had two separate encounters of staff asking for a pay review. One of the staff members was female and one male. Her behaviour towards the male was very different to the female. She responded along the lines of “yeah, I’ll look into it” to the male. The reaction to the female was “I’m pretty sure you’re good?”.  It was only later that she realised the enormity of her reactions to the same request and how that must have looked. Had she really taken the males request seriously and dismissed the female’s? Yep, she had. In fact, she saw the male as more of a provider than the female. With everything that she stood for in both her professional and personal life, you can imagine the shock it gave her when she realised what she had done – totally unaware of it. She was actually contributing to the age old problem of inequality and adding to the problem unconsciously. The good news however was that she had the luxury of catching herself at that point and could rectify the issue, but how many other times before had she missed the opportunity, and what damage had she caused? Think about your own behaviours – how many times has this happened when you were totally unaware?

So rather than just leave it at that, she decided to do something practical about it to ensure she avoid this sort of behaviour in the future. She created the ‘flip it to test it’ test. It’s very quick test to check your judgement in a situation. If you flip the situation on its head, and imagine it in reverse, would you feel comfortable with it? For example, if she looked at the woman in the same way she did the man, how did she feel? If you feel weird, then you might want to check yourself as to why. Try it and see how you get on. I’ve given it a go already and it really works!

Below are some traditional attributes she gave to a man and a woman (left slide) as we are all programmed to think, and she flipped the photos (right slide). How do you feel about these now?


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In eight minutes, Kristen describes her own self-realisation brilliantly. What we all need to take away from this presentation is the fact that any one of us can observe our own biases both unconscious and conscious. If we master this, it will change the way we view the world and the people in it. Just imagine what the world or work would be like if we all created the ability to view it for what it is.  I challenge you to share Kristen’s video with five colleagues, all take the #FlipItToTestIt test and see what you notice about yourself, your behaviours and your awareness. Leave a comment here after and let us know how you got on!

Congratulations Kristen for your contribution to this subject and the boldness to share your very personal experience with the world. This is what leadership is all about, showing the way for others.

  1. Kristen Pressner 1 year ago

    Hi The Needle, I love your idea to put 5 friend to the #FlipItToTestIt challenge! Thanks for shining a light on this important topic

    • Christine 1 year ago

      The thanks is all ours Kristen for your contribution to the industry on the topic. Bias against women leaders is DEFINITELY a topic and one that we ALL need to address, females and males. We will keep spreading the word.