It’s time to face facts. Not all biases are unconscious.
For some time now D&I initiatives have included some form of Unconscious Bias Training. I have written elsewhere about the somewhat unconvincing evidence base for such interventions, although I respect that they often prove a powerful signal to an organization that their leadership is prepared to invest in tackling workplace inequities and can be beneficial as part of larger initiatives.
But even if UBT does prove, after further research, to be a highly effective way of tackling unconscious bias, it still leaves us with a pretty major problem on our hands. . . not all biases are unconscious. In fact, I would argue that in medium to large organizations biases are encoded, quite explicitly, into the culture. Organizations put out mission statements and articulate their values, they decide who to put forward to represent the organization at events and in the media, and they work hard at creating a coherent culture. Which is a good thing in many ways, of course — but there is a very small step from creating a strong and coherent culture to endorsing and encoding bias in your business, and we need to be much more vigiliant about monitoring this line.
To give a concrete example, Goldman Sachs list in their business principles “Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.” Contrast this to Richard Branson’s often repeated quote, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”
The messages are pretty clear. At Goldman Sachs, employees are secondary to the clients. OK, that’s a choice they have made, and it’s clear on the website so you’ll know this before you take a job there, so what’s the issue, you may ask? Well, the issue is that this kind of culture is going to disproportionately impact on women. Given that we know that caring responsibilities fall largely on women (Carers UK notes that Women aged 45–54 are more than twice as likely as other carers to have reduced working hours as a result of caring responsibilities) it seems inevitable that a client-centred company is going to be a statistically tougher place for the average woman to work than it is for the average man. And this is borne out by their gender pay data with The Guardian reporting that “men at Goldman Sachs earn more than twice the average hourly pay of women,” in other words, women are disproportionately more likely to be in junior roles than men.
OK, so this is just one example, and I’m far from saying that Virgin are doing everything right. I’m just using these companies as a way of pointing out that biases are not always unconcious. Leaders in companies spent a lot of time thinking about the culture of the business, and these statement are not “unconscious”; quite the contrary, in fact.
So by all means let’s keep talking about and tackling bias, but we do need to admit that not all biases are unconscious. And where conscious bias exists, we need to be even more proactive and intentional in mitigating its effects. Conscious bias will take conscious action to address, and we need to put this on the agenda now if we hope to see real, institutional changes.