Fighting Unconscious Biasness
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By Dr. Monica Verma *

“Tell me about your project.” “What have you done in your summer internship?”

fighting“Ma’am, I have not done much. I worked in a start-up whose owner is my husband’s friend and I was just involved in documentation and file keeping,” was an honest reply from an elegant and a sincere looking female student. I was a little annoyed but then came a reply from her and her faculty how intelligent and sincere a student she was. But, after her marriage, she is struggling to convince her in-laws to let her continue with her studies and pursue a job afterward. Reflexively, I gave her good marks.

A car abruptly came in front of our college bus. “It must be a woman driver behind the wheels,” was a comment from one of my fellow male colleagues in the bus.

We come across such kind of incidents or situations, a number of times during a day where consciously or unconsciously we either make biased statements or take biased decisions. Bias is defined as prejudice in favour of or against a person or a group or a thing or a situation where comparisons are made with one another which are generally considered as unfair. Biases may be held by an individual or a group or an institution and may have both positive and negative consequences, though viewed as having negative output in the majority of the cases.

Biases are generally classified into two categories: conscious or explicit and unconscious or implicit. We are all aware of our conscious or explicit biases, but unconscious biases are the ones which are hidden, and we do not have any clue of them.

Research suggests that unconscious biases are more prevalent as compared to conscious biases as we take all precautions to not to allow conscious biases to shadow our decisions. But since we are not aware of unconscious biases, we instinctively categorize or classify people, events or situations based on easily observed criteria such as physical appearance, age, weight, skin colour, gender, accent, language, job title, social status, material things possessed by an individual, etc.

Now, the question arises how does it happen? Research indicates that our brains are programmed to make unconscious decisions. This implies that our actions and behaviours are guided by unconscious thinking which is instinctive as well as based on rational thought processes. Information collected by our brain is assigned different patterns, thus helping us to take quick decisions in not so familiar situations.

Since we all have unconscious biases, we carry the same to our workplaces also. These unconscious biases have a deep impact on everything from the dress we wear on a particular day to the employee we select or the one we don’t. These hidden biases get surfaced in different situations at the workplace but the major functional areas where they might have a great impact include recruitment and selection; appraisal; promotion; compensation, etc. Discrimination against people or wrong decisions in these areas might have damaging consequences on both the people and the organization as a whole. The unintentional discrimination might lead to dissatisfaction, mistrust, decreased morale or an increase in the likelihood of people leaving their jobs which will ultimately affect the organization. So, how to remove or mitigate the effects of unconscious biasness?

Researchers and practitioners have suggested a number of ways to reduce the effect of unconscious biasness or not to allow unconscious biasness affect our decisions. The first and the foremost thing is to be aware of our stereotypes and make conscious efforts to not colour our decisions. Special training programmes can be provided to employees to make them aware of their unconscious biases and how they can reflect on their implicit attitude. Practitioners advocate that the presence of positive images in the office space against the negative stereotypes might help to mitigate their negative effect. Also, visualizing the positive images of the people or group for whom we have stereotypical thoughts might help us come closer to them. Deliberate and conscious efforts to be friendlier to those whom we perceive as different can also help to control our biased behaviour.

Easier said than done; in spite of efforts by employees and having awareness training programmes in the organizations, it is very difficult to overcome unconscious biases. But, with the advent of new technology in the form of artificial intelligence and machine learning, these biases can be taken care of as both bring objectivity to some of the processes and hence outperform human beings.

* Dr. Monica Verma, Professor and Head-MBA, IMS Engineering College, Ghaziabad

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