Unconscious bias

So every week or so, I plonk the baby in the car and head to my Mum’s to have a coffee and talk about life, love and the universe.  These chats are not usually very long – but always illuminating.  This week Mum read a copy of Inside Cover that quoted from a certain Mr A Taysom whose minute paper had some interesting thoughts (read here).

I was laughing as I listened – half of me thinking ‘this must be a joke’, half of me thinking – is it actually possible that people still think like this?

The punchline, of course, is that the letter was written some 48 years ago.

Which led us to talk about progress.  Mum thought there had been immense progress since her era when women were gently ‘encouraged’ to be either nurses or airline stewardesses.  (Mind you, she bucked this trend and has a PhD and is a successful writer after an accomplished career in editing and public relations).

And, of course, there has been progress.  We have a female PM and a female Premier in this country – smart, hardworking women who have risen to the pinnacle of politics. There are examples of scientists, lawyers, writers – you name it that have climbed the giddy heights to something representing equal opportunity and status through their hard work and determination.

And yet, as I was listening to that letter from all those years ago, I wondered how far we still had to go.  Whether the overt nature of discrimination and gender bias has been substituted for by something much more insidious and difficult to overcome: the unconscious bias.

At the same time, I read an interesting paper on unconscious bias, which is well worth a read, and which had this to say:

“..Gender schema is learnt early, thoroughly, stored in memory and accessed without awareness. What most people are unaware of is that we have an interesting duality of beliefs: our conscious and unconscious beliefs are quite likely to contradict each other. That’s particularly the case for contentious issues, like gender and race. It applies to people who believe themselves to be egalitarian: conscious egalitarian beliefs co-exist with unconscious bias in the same person. In general, what we say represents our conscious beliefs, while what we do, particularly our nonverbal behaviour, is more representative of our unconscious beliefs…”

Perhaps that is the very nature of progress; it is always more natural to look at how far you have to go rather than how far you’ve come.  But there’s also the danger of complacency: that we’ve come so far; that the requisite progress has been made; that no further work is required.

In many ways, I wonder if the hard work will only ramp up from here – what has gone before has laid the foundation for what will really start to challenge individuals, organisations and society on our most fundamental of beliefs around gender, roles, power and equality.

Or not?

bias, gender, high performance

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