How to tackle unconscious bias: Step 1 – read this!

What is unconscious bias?

Although levels of explicit prejudice are falling, discrimination continues to be a problem for many sections of society.  One reason for this may be ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Everyone has some degree of unconscious bias.  Unconscious thoughts are often based on stereotypes and prejudices that we do not realise that we have.

From a survival point of view, these brain ‘shortcuts’ are a positive and necessary function – they help us to make snap decisions in dangerous situations, for example.  However, in everyday life, they can negatively effect rational decision-making.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has different forms.  One common form is Affinity bias – the subconscious preference for people with similar characteristics to ourselves (sex, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, educational background etc.).  In 2015, the CIPD reported that recruiters were often affected by affinity bias, resulting in the tendency to hire ‘mini-mes’.

The Halo effect involves the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area.  For example, a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, suggesting that there is a perception that taller people make better leaders, or are more successful. Similar patterns have been observed in the military and even for Presidents of the United States.

The Horns effect is the opposite of the ‘Halo effect’ – where one characteristic clouds our opinions of other attributes.  For example, the perception that women are ‘less capable’ in certain occupations.  A review found that female psychologists and women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) departments were just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.

The same qualities can also be perceived very differently in different people – for example, assertiveness in a man may be perceived more positively (‘strong leader’) than in a woman (‘bossy’).

Impact of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias not only influences our body language and the way we interact with people, it can also negatively influence a number of important decisions in the workplace, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Promotion
  • Staff appraisals
  • Workload allocations

As well as being unfair, decisions based on unconscious biases are unlikely to be optimal and can result in missed opportunities.  Where unconscious bias also effects a protected characteristic, it can also be discriminatory.

How to mitigate unconscious bias

So, now you know what unconscious bias is, what can you do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. The first step is to become more aware of the potential of unconscious bias to influence your own decision-making. Large organisations such as Google and the NHS are already providing unconscious bias training to their staff.

You can take this awareness further by taking an Implicit Association Test, such as that provided by Harvard University.  This will help to identify and understand your own personal biases.

Other ways to help reduce the influence of unconscious bias include:

  • Taking time to make decisions
  • Ensuring decisions are justified by evidence and the reasons for decisions are recorded
  • Working with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, such as different teams or colleagues based in a different location
  • Focusing on positive behaviours and not negative stereotypes

At the corporate level, ways that organisations can help to tackle unconscious bias include:

  • Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences, including objective indicators, assessment and evaluation criteria and the use of structured interviews
  • Ensure that selection panels are diverse, containing both male and female selectors and a range other characteristics where possible (ethnicity, age, background etc.)
  • Promote counter-stereotypical images of underrepresented groups
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops

Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral obligation; it is essential if organisations are to be truly inclusive.  By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.


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Apprenticeships – inclusive and accessible to all?

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By Heather Cameron

The government is “committed to making apprenticeships inclusive and accessible to all”. But, unfortunately, this is not currently the case. Just 10.6% of the starting apprenticeships in England in 2014/15 came from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, compared to 14.6% of the general population. And while women are well represented overall, there are significant disparities across sectors.

In response to a recent Ask a Researcher enquiry, we looked into the topic of diversity in apprenticeships and, in particular, the barriers that face some groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

Occupational gender segregation

Occupational gender segregation in apprenticeships was found to be a particular issue. Research has shown that, despite women apprentices having outnumbered men since 2010, young women miss out on certain opportunities as a result of this issue. For example, women comprise 94% of childcare apprentices but under 4% of engineering apprentices. And these figures have hardly changed in the last decade.

According to recent research, occupational gender segregation contributes to women losing out at every level with apprenticeships:

  • Women tend to work in fewer sectors
  • Women receive lower pay than men
  • Women are less likely to receive training as part of their apprenticeship
  • Women are more likely to be out of work at the end of their apprenticeship

In terms of the barriers facing women specifically, a lack of awareness of the careers advice and information services available, or of the funding available for training; formal entry qualifications; and child care and other caring responsibilities have all been cited.

Under-representation

The other significant issue highlighted by the research is the under-representation of BAME groups. The overwhelming majority (88.5%) of apprenticeship starters in 2014/15 were White and the provisional figures for 2015/16 are similar at 88.1%. This compares to just 10.6% of apprenticeship starts from BAME groups in 2014/15, with provisional figures for 2015/16 down slightly at 10.4%.

Similarly to women, BAME apprentices are also under-represented in specific sectors. Fewer than 3% of apprentices in construction, land based industries, science, engineering and manufacturing, building services engineering, and hair and beauty came from a BAME background.

Barriers facing ethnic minorities include a lack of awareness around the benefits of apprenticeships and parental influence. A study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has therefore called for action to increase the awareness of apprenticeships among ethnic minority young people and their parents.

Progress

Despite the issues of occupational gender segregation and ethnic minority under-representation, it should be noted that progress has been made.

The most recent statistics on apprenticeships in England show that: there were 12% more apprenticeship starts in 2015 than in the previous year and that achievements increased by 1% over the same period; overall, between 2013/14 and 2014/15 the number of apprenticeship starts increased across all age groups except for people aged under 16 and those aged 18 to 24; the number of apprenticeship starts for learners with learning disabilities and/or difficulties was up by 12%; and although an overwhelming number of apprenticeship starters were White, the number of non-White apprenticeship starters increased by 17%.

Way forward

The government ambitiously aims to deliver 3 million quality apprenticeships by 2020, to reflect the widest spectrum of society. And it has pledged to increase the proportion of apprentices from black and minority ethnic backgrounds by 20% from 10% to 11.9%. However, no specific targets have been set for gender diversity.

The research suggests that formal entry criteria should be removed where not necessary to encourage better uptake of different apprenticeships by women, and awareness of apprenticeships should be increased with initiatives targeting ethnic minority young people and their parents. Other recommendations include introducing diversity targets within organisations, providing more part-time and flexible apprenticeships and providing better advice and support to apprentices at all stages.

Perhaps if such additional actions are taken, the government will move closer to its commitment of making apprenticeships truly inclusive and accessible to all.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in our previous blog on higher apprenticeships.

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Equal to the task? Addressing racial inequality in public services

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Throughout October, a series of events to promote diversity and equality will take place as part of Black History Month. Although there are many achievements to celebrate, it is an unfortunate fact that many people in the UK today still experience disadvantage due to the colour of their skin.

Over the summer, reports by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), found that racial inequality in the UK was ‘worryingly high’.

In its biggest ever review of race inequality in the UK, the EHRC concluded that:

“while for certain people life has become fairer over the past five years, for others progress has stalled and for some– in particular young Black people – life on many fronts has got worse.”

Audit of racial disparities announced

The government responded quickly by announcing an audit of racial disparities in public services. It promises to ‘shine a light on injustices as never before’.

From summer 2017, Whitehall departments will be required to identify and publish information annually on outcomes for people of different backgrounds in areas such as health, education, childcare, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice.

As well as enabling the public to check how their race affects the way they are treated by public services, the data is also intended to help force services to improve.

The audit is being called ‘unprecedented’ – and it certainly is – up until now, public services in the UK have not systematically gathered data for the purposes of racial comparison. Indeed, according to the FT, very few countries, if any at all, currently produce racial impact audits.

‘Worryingly high’ levels of racial inequality

The audit will have its work cut out.  The review by the EHRC found that, compared to their White counterparts, people from ethnic minorities were more likely to be:

  • unemployed
  • on low wages and/or in insecure employment
  • excluded from school
  • less qualified
  • living in poverty
  • living in substandard and/or overcrowded accommodation
  • experiencing mental and physical health problems
  • in the criminal justice system
  • stopped and searched by police
  • a victim of hate crime
  • a victim of homicide

Institutional racism

Similarly, the CERD findings into how well the UK is meeting its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) raised serious concerns about the level of institutional racism in UK public services. Omar Khan, of the Runnymede Trust, suggested that the findings would ‘embarrass the UK on the world stage’.

Longstanding inequalities in access to services, the quality of care received and patients’ health outcomes were criticised, as was the over-representation of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in psychiatric institutions.

The committee echoed the EHRC’s concerns regarding higher unemployment rates and the concentration of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in insecure and low-paid work.  They also criticised the use of discriminatory recruitment practices by employers.

In education, there were concerns regarding reports of racist bullying and harassment in schools, and the lack of balanced teaching about the history of the British Empire and colonialism, particularly with regard to slavery.

The committee also concluded that there had been an outbreak of xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic minorities, particularly since the EU referendum campaign.  Indeed, the rise in post-Brexit racial tensions has been widely acknowledged.

Equal to the task?

Although the audit has been welcomed by many, including the EHRC, others have raised concern about the extent to which it will tackle the root of the problem.  Danny Dorling, of Oxford University, remains sceptical, stating that “within two or three years every single one of these audits is forgotten”.

Some have noted that in order to be effective, the audit will also have to capture outcomes for migrant families, and for poorer White people, who also suffer from discrimination and disadvantage.  Others, including Labour’s Angela Rayner, shadow equalities minister, have noted that there is a ‘huge gap’ in the review as it would not include the private sector.

The EHRC have called upon the government to createa comprehensive, coordinated and long-term strategy to achieve race equality, with stretching new targets to improve opportunities and deliver clear and measurable outcomes.”

Certainly, the data produced by the racial equality audit may well provide some basis for the establishment of such targets.

So while this October there is cause for celebrating the progress made so far, the findings of the EHRC and the CERD underline just how entrenched and far-reaching race inequality remains.  As the EHRC states:

“We must tackle this with the utmost urgency if we are to heal the divisions in our society and prevent an escalation of tensions between our communities.”


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