Addressing bias demands an experience-based approach, says Rakhi Chand.
'This is actually quite good’, said a senior colleague at a charity where I worked as a manager a few years back. He was commenting on a letter I’d written on behalf of staff to the board of trustees and I heard the ‘actually' loudly because to me multiple biases appeared at play. And demotivating as ever.
Collectively such biases are dangerous. An example is the tendency for both men and women to prefer male leaders, as reported by Professor Alice Eagly. Gender bias persists across all sectors and worldwide, realising its power to reduce the life chances for many women, especially those contending with multiple unfavourable biases as many black women do.
Here I discuss an alternative to common workplace training aimed at addressing unconscious bias and hence systemic discrimination. I’m not separating gender bias from other forms; a holistic approach is taken.
The trickiness of bias - leadership and training
A seminal 2014 report on racial bias entitled ‘The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS' showed leadership as intimately connected to such systemic discrimination. For example, bias towards presenteeism may manifest itself in unfavourable flexible working policies which mainly affect women. Leadership awareness of biases may therefore mitigate them being woven wholesale into policies.
Research on unconscious bias training does not point to much success. For example, a large-scale meta-analysis conducted in 2019 indicated that such training was ineffective in changing behaviour.
And in a recent prominent case, the UK Civil Service decided to abandon its unconscious bias training, saying there was no evidence that it changed attitudes and that it could even exacerbate the problem through the normalisation of biases. However, the accompanying statement from the Civil Service did not offer clarity as to what precisely the proposed alternatives were.
So what alternatives do exist? One alternative could be more reflexive and experience-based learning to counter problems of bias. Indeed, I have my own experience of experiential training.
As a budding psychotherapist in 2007, much of my training aimed to increase awareness of biases because they get in the way of the potential of the individual sat opposite. Psychotherapy training taught me to expect, get comfortable with, and be curious about my biases. To ‘decriminalise’ them, as Pooja Sachdev says, a prominent inclusion practitioner.
How? Well, experiential encounter groups are no-agenda groups comprised of individuals from all walks of life (in this case, other trainee therapists), and a qualified facilitator (here, a psychotherapist), and the aim is to engage with ‘live’ identity and power dynamics. Indeed, Dr Jenny Rodriguez at Alliance Manchester Business School is among those who advocate this holistic approach. We learnt to relate across our differences and myriad biases.
Hallway of mirrors
I spent at least four hours every month for three years entering this hallway of mirrors. The lenses through which I saw the world and myself were illuminated. I realised for instance that I think woman, I think middle-class, I think Indian, I think English.
So the group nudged me towards blind spots and my responsibility was to be open to these. I learnt that I would sometimes ‘mind’ men in the group more than I would do others, a disappointing but essential learning without which I could not temper my reproduction of such inequality.
What is clear is that the intractable problem of bias demands a consistent, committed approach, one that continues for me today, both formally and informally.
The process of experiential training groups is questioned by some, and not everyone finds the no-agenda format always comfortable. However I do not recall any participant, including the trainees I’ve supervised over the years, rebuffing their overall value in terms of increasing awareness of biases. This outcome appeared inevitable if one were open to it.
However I note that it was also still a very middle-class, white training. I have no doubt that I would have addressed more biases were it not so. For starters, being born and educated in the UK I had to some extent imbibed a system of colonial biases: e.g. to see colleagues from the Global North as ‘scientific’ and ‘modern’, and those from the Global South, less so. Professor Anshuman Prasad gave me an excellent lesson in this with his influential paper ‘The Jewel in the Crown: Postcolonial Theory and Workplace Diversity’.
Getting out of the way
“Leadership should be aimed at helping to free people from oppressive structures, practices and habits encountered in societies and institutions, as well as within the shady recesses of ourselves”, writes leadership Professor Amanda Sinclair. Though undoubtedly not the only avenue for growth, experiential groups are where I have learnt most about these ‘shady recesses’, and about how I perpetuate inequalities through my biases. And hence how not to. Indeed, I learnt how to get out of the way with clients, and with colleagues when I became a manager.
The promotion and retention chances of marginalised staff – regardless of sector - depend on leadership helping to free people through an active engagement with individual and collective unconscious bias, amongst other initiatives for a multi-pronged approach to inequalities. Indeed this is the topic of my doctoral research that, although focused on healthcare, examines the lack of diversity at leadership levels which are far from unique to this sector.
Breaking the bias
So what does all this mean for International Women’s Day and the theme ‘breaking the bias’? Well, I advocate awareness rather than elimination of bias. The latter is unrealistic since biases are integral to our humanity and conditioning. And, I don’t want to sustain inequalities through shame about my biases.
Rather, awareness is information that helps stymie the reproduction of systemic inequalities, gendered or otherwise. As critical feminist scholar Audrey Thompson said: “There is no such thing as racial innocence, there is only racial responsibility or irresponsibility.” And the same is true for gender.