Report on the “Right Thinking on Equality & Diversity – Challenge & Opportunity” lunchtime CPD talk given for business matters by Di Airey on 3rd June 2015.
business matters is grateful to Pinsent Masons for the use of their conference room for this talk and for the working lunch provided for those attending.
The PowerPoint presentation used by Di to illustrate her talk is available by clicking the icon at the foot of the page.
Di gave this talk as part of the “Resilience @ Work” series of CPD lunchtimes. She chose to focus on a particular aspect of Equality and Diversity, namely “Unconscious Bias and the Use of Language”
In introducing the topic, Di gave us a little background on herself and her career to date. She has worked in the field of Personnel and HR for 25 years and, while only being a Diversity Consultant for a shorter time, was quite clear that, actually, diversity had been part of her core values all along with her passion for people receiving a fair chance in life and business being a huge motivating factor throughout her own working life. Removing barriers, both literal and figurative, has been part of her career where she has worked with a wide range of bodies including Parliament and Paint Distributors.
Di challenged us with the statement that 40 years of Equality Legislation and Training has not made enough difference to the realities in the workplace. Training gives us knowledge but does not always translate into behaviours and beliefs – we still are wide open to unconscious bias. The best schemes are only intentions if they are not backed up by reality. She reminded us that our behaviours are driven by our thinking – both conscious and unconscious – if we don’t recognise this and address our thinking then our actions will not change.
Di highlighted a number of points from basic bias theory:
- We all make assumptions. She tested this out by asking those present to talk with the person next to them and, having checked it was OK, to outline any assumptions they may have made about that person when they first saw them before the talk. This resulted in a huge buzz in the room (and quite a bit of laughter). Assumptions are not necessarily correct and we can often be led down the wrong path.
- We all have prejudices. This is perhaps less comfortable to recognise but if we think about it we are usually drawn to those who remind us of ourselves, our families and our workmates.
- In a complex world we need to group and categorise if we are to process the huge amount of information that assails us. The conscious thought process can handle around 45 separate items of information, while the unconscious can handle up to 10 million – so when we think about something our default is to group to simplify. For example if we have just decided to move house then we are much more aware of “For Sale” signs which have always been there but which we have not previously noticed – a type of thinking bias creeping in.
- Implicit associations which we make are based on perception and perception is not necessarily reality. Di used the example of a picture of a spider where someone with a fear of such creatures would go through a process of seeing the picture, feeling a sense of danger and perhaps fear and translating that into an urge to flee.
Moving on, Di talked about how we often react very quickly to make associations and how doing this without recognising the consequences can be a problem. She showed some images and asked us to “react”. The first image, of a man with distorted facial features, elicited comments like “has he had a stroke?” or “is he blind?”. The reality is that he suffers from the same condition as Stephen Hawking but it was illuminating to recognise that our reaction to the unknown individual had been rather more negative than to Professor Hawking. Similarly, images of Mark Zuckerberg and Levi Roots were used to demonstrate that, unless we know someone’s background, we are very liable to categorise and judge, usually wrongly.
Di shared some example biases from business statistics from the US, including factors such as height, obesity and, from the UK, accent.
Stereotypes, which we are all prone to adopt, can lead to prejudice and ultimately discrimination. This is an all-too-easy continuum to slide along.
Di highlighted that each of us, as individuals, has opportunities and responsibilities in this area. If we don’t deal with this as individuals then, often, we become subsumed into a “company” culture. An example of this was the Stephen Lawrence case where the Metropolitan Police had been found to be practising “institutionalised racism”.
Di then tackled the area of how we “break through” these barriers and ingrained mindsets. Key points included:
- Take your time in interactions – hurry, and biases will rise up to the surface
- Be curious – don’t be frightened to talk about differences (in a way that the other person is comfortable with)
- Challenge assumptions
- Seek out exceptions – this can help to change your own stereotypes
- Pay attention to “micro-inequalities” – for example even a raised eyebrow can convey (too) much
- Build your own “hyper-awareness”
As a summary, she drew on work by Binna Kandola on Combating Organisational Bias which highlighted the following key points:
- Create plans – including real implementation intentions – for example what does fairness in recruitment really look like
- Combat negative images by focusing on positive images and role models – for example Nelson Mandela
- Clarify the question – look for positives rather than shooting down negatives – have the mindset of selecting 10 out of 50 rather than rejecting 40
- Confront the issues – learn to hold a mirror up to ourselves and others but don’t surface the biases without being ready to deal with the consequences
- Change our viewpoint/perspective and learn to be empathetic
- Categorisation – learning to see two groups as one – look at what connects people rather than what separates them
- Contact – if we find we have an inbuilt bias then it can be good to immerse ourselves in a situation which allows us to challenge this
- Champion diversity – this goes beyond mere tolerance
- Create the right conditions for diversity – a culture of safe openness
For the final few minutes of her talk, Di explored the “World of Words”. She displayed a number of words (disabled, coloured, queer, wheelchair bound) and facilitated a discussion on whether and when/where these were acceptable. Much of the discussion focused on context.
The following principles emerged:
- Keep the person first and the difference second priority. Don’t identify and emphasise differences unless it is necessary and don’t categorise the person by the difference. For example say “he has epilepsy” rather than “he is an epileptic”
- Avoid negative language – for example “cancer victim”
- Allow self-identification – for example the use of Asian or Pakistani – take the lead from the person. If you need to know then ask
- Aim to be inclusive by being more specific – for example avoiding umbrella terms such as “disability”
- Watch out for “in” or “reclaimed” words
- Think of equivalent terms – for example “ladies and gentlemen” is usually fine whereas “men and girls” is probably not.
Di followed her talk with a short Q&A session where the key learning points include holding your assumptions lightly and learning to use generic terms which create a welcoming environment.
Di was thanked for her illuminating talk and comments from the audience were very positive.