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Conscious and unconscious bias: in conversation with Roni Savage

08 December 2022

Advice on identifying your biases and addressing them as individuals and as organisations.

Conscious and unconscious bias: in conversation with Roni Savage
Roni believes constant reflection and self-awareness can help to tackle biases. Image credit: Roni Savage

“Unconscious bias is something that a lot more people suffer from than we realise,” says ICE Fellow Roni Savage, CEO of Jomas Associates.

We sat down to talk to Roni about inclusive leadership and it soon became clear that one of the biggest obstacles to this management approach is bias.

When it comes to bias, you’ve likely heard that it can be conscious or unconscious. But how do you tell the difference?

What is conscious bias?

Conscious bias definition:

According to CPD College Online, conscious bias is bias that you are aware of:

"An individual with conscious bias is likely to be explicit with their beliefs and attitudes and behave with clear intent."

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases can be more difficult to identify because it implies that we’re unaware of their existence.

According to a BBC article:

“Unconscious bias refers to the deep-seated prejudices we all absorb due to living in deeply unequal societies.

“Unconscious or implicit bias can lead to instinctive assumptions that a nurse must be a woman or an engineer must be a man [a myth often debunked by our members!] ...”

Unconscious bias is dangerous because it could lead you to exclude certain people without intending to.

Conscious vs unconscious bias

“Unconscious bias is when you’re subconsciously drawn to what you’re used to, without thinking about your choice. And that subconscious decision is made simply because that is your comfort zone,” Roni clarifies.

“I always say, the first thought you have may not be your fault. You can’t be blamed for an initial thought because it’s a natural reaction."

“It’s the second thought and your subsequent actions that you become wholly accountable for. From the second thought onward, we’re talking about conscious bias now,” she says.

Unconscious bias on a personal level

If you’re open minded, you’re less likely to have unconscious bias.

Roni Savage

Roni says that if you suspect you’re biased, or that you don’t have inclusive views, it is important that you get out of your comfort zone.

“It is critical that you associate with other people who may be somewhat different to you, expand your contacts and join more diverse networks,” she notes.

“This exposure enables an education which opens your mind to appreciating the lived experiences of others, so that your biases are dealt with. Treating everyone as a unique individual without preconceived ideas or stereotypes also helps,” she says.

She adds: “If you’re open minded, you’re less likely to have unconscious bias.”

Unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias can creep into workplaces.

It can lead to the normalisation of certain environments, explains Ksenia Zheltoukhova, head of research and thought leadership at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“If people look around and they only see a particular type of person around them, they begin to think that this is the kind of person that is successful in this organisation and therefore continue to conform with that type of norm, furthering the lack of diversity in organisations.”

Unconscious bias in recruitment

To tackle unconscious bias in recruitment, you must first understand what specific bias you’re trying to mitigate, says Azmat Mohammed, director general of the British Institute of Recruiters.

This will be unique to each organisation, and could relate to protected characteristics like sexual orientation and gender, but also to things like where someone went to university.

Once the biases have been identified, there are a few ways to help combat them:

  • Blind recruitment: removing identifying characteristics (names, addresses, date of birth, photos) from CVs can help to mitigate biases based on those attributes.
  • Revise your organisation’s imagery: if a website only has photos of a particular type of people (i.e., white, middle-aged men), that could discourage some people from applying to the company.
  • Reworking job descriptions: revise job adverts to ensure they don’t include gendered language, for example. Also, job adverts don’t need to be too technical, which could steer some people away from applying.
  • Test work-related scenarios: ask your candidates about specific situations they may face in the role. It’s about what you’re looking for, rather than who you’re looking for.
  • Standardise interviews: deciding on a structured set of questions can allow your hiring managers to more objectively compare candidates.
  • Advertise your jobs on more than one channel: consider that certain age groups may be more likely to use particular channels, especially social media.

Other ways to avoid bias in recruitment include doing one interview stage over the phone, having more than one person sift through applications, and keeping a written record of decisions.

What do you do if you suspect the whole organisation has unconscious bias?

From Roni’s leadership perspective, she says: “If you suspect that you have a team making decisions based on biases, ensure you organise training for the team.”

"Unconscious bias training is great, but ensure you understand whether it’s conscious or unconscious bias you are dealing with first. If it’s unconscious, train them. If it’s conscious, they should not be in the team.” she adds.

“To ensure effective eradication of biases, I always recommend that this is embedded into the culture of the organisation.”

What is unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias training (UBT) is there to help make people aware of their biases and understand how these can affect other people and the organisation as a whole.

It can take the form of:

  • Implicit association tests (where you make quick judgments based on a series of images, for example)
  • Presentations on how biases affect people from marginalised groups
  • Roleplay as a hiring manager and evaluating mock candidates from different groups
  • Workshops on how to overcome bias

But UBT has also been criticised.

Some research has suggested it has limited long-term effects on changing beliefs, behaviours and representation.

Issues come when training is treated as a box-ticking exercise, with some believing that once they’ve done it, they’ve become ‘cured’ of unconscious bias.

That could make a person more biased than ever, particularly if they stop questioning their thoughts and instincts!

The need for more comprehensive diversity training

It’s also worth remembering that unconscious bias isn’t the only problem.

As Gareth Buchanan, an inclusion consultant, explains: “[Employees] have to negotiate others’ conscious, systemic, outright discrimination, victimisation, and exclusion.”

“UBT is designed to complement, or refine, a much broader employment, diversity and inclusion strategy,” Buchanan adds.

As Zheltoukhova says, UBT still won’t tell you what decision to make, or who to hire.

“There is bigger work to be done... in terms of how [leaders] foster the inclusive climate, inclusive culture in their organisations. And unconscious bias is just part of it,” she adds.

The bottom line

Confronting our biases can be challenging and lead to difficult conversations (with others and with ourselves).

As Roni pointed out, we can avoid bias through “education, listening and opening your mind to the impact that your actions have on others.”

Earlier this year, we shared a list of books that could be a helpful resource to have conversations about race and to understand more about neurodiversity.

But there’s no easy fix for bias.

Even using AI-powered tools that claim to remove human bias from recruitment has its dangers, as Cambridge’s Centre for Gender Studies argues.

Roni notes: “Constant reflection, self-awareness, putting oneself in the shoes of others, questioning actions, listening to the thoughts, perspectives and opinions of others, will help us all improve our biases.”

Essentially, get to know yourself and others better!

Access the full Anti-Racism Toolkit

The ICE has published a second version of its Anti-Racism Toolkit to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

The aim of the toolkit is to offer a voice to the lived experiences of the ICE’s Black and minority ethnic members. It seeks to ensure that civil engineering is an industry that is representative of those who work in it.

It’s no longer enough to be non-racist or not overtly offensive. The ICE calls for the industry to treat racism the same way it treats a health and safety issue – stop and report it.

The Anti-Racism Toolkit

  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE