9 Questions to Uncover Unconscious Bias
When we first started doing training for our clients on unconscious bias and diversity we realised the main challenge of this topic was to create an environment where trainees can be open and honest and challenge themselves and others. We also realised that unconscious bias is not something you can ‘teach’ someone about; the only way to understand it is to experience it. So, in our training programmes we typically start with brain teasers to get trainees engaged and interested right away. The value of these brain teasers is the discussions that they lead to, where trainees can link the bias they have experienced in a simple quiz question to a real issue or example from their professional lives. The little ‘jolt’ they get from getting a simple question wrong can be a powerful way of nudging them to think differently about what they see and experience in the workplace, and lead to actions.
Try it for yourself. Here are nine questions that should get you thinking! Answers and commentary are at the end of the post.
A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies and the son is rushed to hospital for surgery. The surgeon says: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”. How this is possible?
A bat and a ball cost EUR 1.10. The bat costs one Euro more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last 100 years?
- More than doubled
- Decreased by 50%
- Remained the same
When recruiting a new role which job title attracted more female candidates?
- Senior Engineer (m/f)
- Senior Engineer (f/m)
- Senior Engineer
What proportion of our thought processes are unconscious?
You need to choose between two final candidates in a job interview. Candidate A has 15 years’ experience in a similar role. Candidate B has only 5 years’ experience. Which candidate is more likely to succeed in the role?
Which statement is true?
- Happy, successful people have fewer biases
- You can reduce the biases your brain produces
- We all have biases – it’s what makes us human
If a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than a man. Why is this?
Which sentence is more factual?
- Gender diverse executive teams produce better results
- High performing executive teams have more female executives
Answers and comments
- The surgeon is the boy’s mother. English is a ‘gender neutral’ language, which means we do not change words to show if they are male or female (as in French, German, Italian, etc.). However, many people still assume the job of ‘surgeon’ is inherently male and may struggle to get the right answer to this question. If job roles like ‘engineer’, ‘HR, ‘manager’ carry similar assumptions, this could influence how people are hired and promoted in organisations.
- 5 cents. If you answered 10 cents you were probably using intuition to answer. However, the obvious answer is not always the correct one. If we take a bit of time and use our reasoning rather than our quick-thinking intuition, the question is simple to answer. Many decisions in business are actually taken on intuition. Why do you think this is, and does it have any risks?
- Remained the same. In Hans Rosling’s 2018 book Factfullness [https://www.amazon.com/Factfulness-Reasons-World-Things-Better/dp/1250107814] he describes how many people, even ‘experts’, get this question wrong because we are influenced by what the media shows us. A common bias is to make decisions based on a narrow selection of information (often what we have close to hand) instead of looking for other sources. If you are a decision-maker it is important to gather as many sources of information as possible and especially important to ask yourself, “What don’t I know?”
- Option (b). This experiment, recounted in Inclusion Nudges [https://www.amazon.com/Inclusion-Nudges-Guidebook-Unconscious-Organisations/dp/152363541X], suggests that we need to be very explicit if we want to recruit female candidates into roles that are very strongly perceived as male, even when not indicated as in option (c). In Germany it became law in 2019 to add ‘(m/f)’ to all job advertisements. This may look like a step forward. What do you think? In fact, there is no evidence that this leads to any changes in who applies.
- Neuroscientists estimate it is 99%. This makes it virtually impossible to prevent bias by just thinking ‘consciously’ because it means going against our nature. A more useful strategy is to make changes to processes and systems to ‘build out’ bias, e.g. changing the way we write job roles.
- We simply don’t know because past experience is no guarantee of future performance. Our over-reliance on past experience is a powerful bias. The only way to overcome it is to look for evidence-based data. For example, what is the correlation between previous experience and actual performance for everyone you have hired in the last 5 years?
- Bias is a natural part of our brain and is actually useful in many situations. The trick is to recognise when it is useful and when it is not, and develop decision-making habits that use the correct system [link to system 1 and 2 video].
- Isn’t this a shocking statistic? In her 2019 book Invisible Women [https://www.amazon.com/Invisible-Women/dp/1784742929], Caroline Criado Perez explains how cars are designed by men and therefore they are built for men and men’s bodies. This powerful book uses data to show how women’s absence has lead to a world designed without women in mind. The book will help you to see many examples of this in the workplace that you may simply not have seen before, and perhaps make some changes!
- Only sentence (b) could be a fact. Sentence (a) takes two facts and assigns causality to them. The causality bias is very common and we do it all the time because it’s neat and quick. But beware when you see links between disparate facts. Always ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ before accepting cause and effect statements!
How to turn this into action?
Finally, here are 7 ideas for practical steps you can take in the workplace to mitigate bias. These ideas were generated by training groups which discussed some of the questions above.
- Try to ensure that interview panels have diverse individuals – think about different ages, genders, nationalities, job roles. Because bias is unconscious, you really need someone with a different perspective to point it out to you.
- Establish criteria for making important decisions e.g. at least 3 solutions to every problem, ensure you have counter-evidence for each solution, and seek other people’s input
- Replace resumes with a standard application form all candidates must complete. This ensures you get the same information on every candidate and you can limit the amount of personal information that could bias short-listers.
- Back up decisions with real data and evidence and challenge others to do the same; this can mitigate bias in decisions made with ‘gut instinct’.
- In performance reviews, don’t ask people to rate themselves. This could set up a bias in your mind and prevent you being objective.
- Ask different people chair meetings so that you get different perspectives on the table.
- Spend regular time getting to know remote team members as individuals, in order to remove the feeling of distance in virtual teams.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you would like to know more about our experience of working with clients in this area, feel free to contact us.