Learning about unconscious bias

This September, our bi-annual Corporate Partner Breakfast Morning was centred around the topic of ‘unconscious bias’. Unconscious bias is central to contemporary understanding of the way in which prejudice and stereotypes can persist against different groups of people: it refers to the implicit associations that we make about others, often outside of our awareness but that never-the-less influence our behaviour.

The creation of stigma

If we were to ask people on the street what they associate with terms like foster care, adoption, or care leavers, chances are that most people will think of the moment a child goes into care. They might think of scenes of domestic violence, sexual abuse or drug addicted parents who leave their children dirty and hungry in a cold cellar flat; an image regularly perpetuated by entertainment media. The term ‘care’ is then associated with the troubled child and the rebellious teenager who acts out and are doomed to spend a lifetime of social services, criminality and prison. When care leavers are spoken about it is often with reference to the statistics which represent the negative outcomes for care leavers. Whilst this is an important story to tell, if it is the only story that is told it can reinforce a negative stereotype and perpetuate stigma against care leavers.  

To encourage our partners to interrogate their own perceptions of others and how this might influence their recruitment processes or working environments, Miranda Reilly, Head of Strategic Engagement and Mija Valdez, Communications Assistant at DCMS and Drive Forward Ambassador, delivered a presentation on unconscious bias.

What is Unconscious Bias and how does it impact the workplace?

In the 1990s, The Implicit Association Test was developed by Banaji and Greenwald1. This test, and a variety of similar techniques which followed, measures automatic evaluations that are made by subjects about different social groups. Often, these evaluations were found to differ from explicitly expressed evaluations by those same subjects. Further, in some circumstances, the automatic evaluations better predicted a person’s actions than their explicit attitude. Results of these tests provide an explanation for why, despite changes in the general public’s explicitly expressed attitudes towards specific groups relating to race or gender, outcomes for these groups have not changed2.

In the workplace, unconscious bias has been shown to influence candidate selection, recruitment processes and the potential for promotion. For example, the automatic association between ‘white’ and ‘good’ made by test subjects was shown to influence judgements made on whether someone is called for an interview upon receiving a CV with a name typically associated with someone who is white as opposed to a name associated with someone from an ethnic-minority3.

At the breakfast morning, the aim was primarily to raise awareness of unconscious bias and its potential to influence attitudes in and of the workplace. Despite the misleading name we can be conscious of our unconscious bias and thereby challenge them. In this undertaking it is important to recognise that we all have biases. The ability to categorise the world around us, making automatic judgements based on past experiences, is what enables us to process the enormous amount of information that we process on a day-to-day basis. However, we must take responsibility for these judgements because, when applied to others, they are informed by social conditioning, media portrayals and culture and therefore can result in damaging stereotypes.

Thomas Lawson, in his article Us White CEO’s Need to Talk4 provides an example, from his own experience, to illustrate how he became aware of his bias (labelling it subconscious prejudice in recognition of the contradiction involved by using the label unconscious bias):

“My husband told me a few months ago that whenever he’s on public transport, white people avoid sitting next to him. When I mention this to black people, they, not surprisingly, do not bat an eyelid. When I mention it to white people, they’re astonished and, sometimes, wonder whether he’s mistaken. About a month ago, I was tired and on my way home. I got off the tube and then on to my bus; there were two empty seats and after I’d sat down I realised I’d sat down next to a white man and not a black man. Surprised, I checked myself and realised I’d felt threatened by the black guy but when I looked at him there wasn’t anything about him that I found threatening. Apart from, apparently, his skin colour.”

Challenging our unconscious bias

By being aware of our biases, we are better equipped to check ourselves and, the more we do so, the better chance we have of changing our behaviour to treat others as individuals and not according to group membership.

Mija spoke from his personal experience as well as highlighting some of the practices at the Department for Culture Media and Sport, where he is employed, which tackle unconscious bias. For example, DCMS have created recruitment processes which actively seek under-represented groups, including being part of the Civil Service Care Leaver Scheme. In addition, they have created support networks and ensured safe spaces for open conversations through their reverse mentoring scheme which invites Senior Civil Servants to be mentored by BAME and staff with disabilities over a 6-month course. Mija challenged some of the associations that people might have when they think about care experience, emphasising the way in which a childhood in care can cultivate drive and resilience:  

“It has taken a long time to be fully comfortable with myself and share my experience in care. However, I do what most care leavers do and find a way of turning everything into a positive. By sharing my experience in care I want to create a positive impact that resonates with people. My aim is for people to be inspired, instead of feeling the need to have pity and fighting the stigma that exists today. What care leavers can offer is our drive and ambition, our resilience to succeed. Once given the chance to prove ourselves, we go above and beyond to deliver as we know how rare good opportunities are.”

Finally, Mija ended by encouraging the partners in the room to follow the lead of Tony Prophet, Chief equality Officer at Salesforce, who said of their own workforce “we want to have a workplace where the folks inside of our walls look like the people outside”5.

This call to action has already had an effect to our current partners who have started by looking at their recruitment processes and implementing, for example, blind CVs.

Our next Breakfast Morning will be on the theme of ‘Belonging’. This will include a panel discussion with Drive Forward Ambassadors who will share what belonging means to them as care leavers, as well as what employers can do to foster feelings of belonging in the workplace. To join our partner network, and attend events such as these, please contact Miranda Reilly on mirnada@driveforwardfoundation.org

A Solitary Sunflower – Mija Valdez

At the age of 16 I was another child who ended up into the foster care system. Leaving my home with only a bin bag full of clothes, this project demonstrates the varied emotions I went through from the day I had moved into a new foster home right through to the end, looking towards the future and taking a step closer to my career. Foster Care is a topic not many people know much about, especially as it is often generalised by the media instead of being represented by individual experiences. This was the foundation to starting this project: to provide a unique and personal insight on the varied scenarios children in care encounter and the difficulties they face, without having a safety net and lacking a stable place where they can truly feel at home. Using cinematic imagery, performative costumes, creative lighting styles and exaggerated sets I have produced a series of images that recreates my story for the viewer. Visit A Solitary Sunflower


Miranda (2)

Miranda Reilly


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