So I’ve recently completed an Implicit Association Test (IAT).
For anyone who hasn’t done one before, you’re asked to very quickly categorize two concepts with an attribute – e.g. male and female with emotion. The test assumes that apparently easier pairings (female/emotion) have faster responses than more problematic pairings (male/emotion) which bring about slower responses. The test is designed to detect just how strong a person's automatic association is. Researchers believe that IAT scores may reflect attitudes which people are unwilling to reveal such as racist or sexist tendencies. It may also reveal bias that people just aren’t aware they have.
Me a sexist? Never. Some of my best friends are women.
The test can be on all sorts of topics from gender, race and religion to sexuality and weight. I chose to do a test based on gender and career bias because as a woman in her late 40s (just) who grew up in a family where both parents worked, who works full time, has always championed women’s causes, has designed and delivered training and communications on equality and values and has two teenage girls who are absolutely passionate about equality and diversity – you’d think that this wouldn’t provide me with a particularly significant challenge.
You’d be wrong.
All was going well during stage 1 of the test while I was happily clicking away at male/career, female/home, male/management, female/wedding, male/salary, female/ relationships. My allocation of given words to the stereotypically associated gender was fast. But when I then had to put words like management, salary and career against female as quickly as possible I started to become confused. I lost track of what should go where, what I was meant to be doing. I became flustered, started swearing and getting cross with myself. My results showed a ‘slight’ automatic association with male/career female/home.
Obviously I’d skewed the results!
Always up for a bit of domestic conflict, I then asked my 18 year old, ardent feminist daughter to do the same test. I wish I hadn’t. She had a major strop, said I’d fixed the test in some way and stormed out of the room. How I’d introduced the test to her had obviously skewed the results! It was my fault. Not hers. She showed a ‘moderate’ automatic association with female/home.
The fact is that we all think that bias is something that only other people with no values are guilty of – we never think it’s us.
Unconscious bias isn’t in our control.
As discussed by Mary Ann Sieghart on BBC Radio 4, the thumb print of the culture that we’ve grown up in and been surrounded by is left on our unconscious. Even women are biased against women.
So how then do we expect to tackle this in-built bias in our organisations?
Do we honestly think that making people do a training once a year is going to do the trick? We’re neither changing ourselves as individuals or our workplaces; we’re merely ticking a box.
So what can we do to challenge our unconscious bias in our everyday work lives?
Be conscious in our tweets and retweets, and who we follow on social media. Share stories within your organisational culture of women and their successes. Who do you talk about as your icons? Who are the people you criticise and judge?
Really explore your habits in the workplace – not just in what you say or do, but in your systems and processes, in your interview selection process, in your assumptions about roles and experience, in any conclusions you may jump to.
Your beliefs and values as an organisation may be one thing – but where are those beliefs put into practice? How are they experienced by the people within the organisation or who come into contact with the organisation?
Senior management need to be explicit. Greater diversity is not only morally the right thing to do but that it also makes good business sense; it’s essential if the organisation is to achieve what it needs to achieve. And people need to hear that from the top.
Regularly check in with ourselves
As both my daughter and I realised - we can sit and pretend we have no bias, but that would be a lie. We all have it and the only way we can start to change things is to be more self-aware, regularly check in with ourselves and recognise it.
Sarah has 25 years’ experience of developing communications & learning for some of the world’s biggest brands.