What I learnt from taking part in unconscious bias training

Anyone who plays a part in promoting diversity in the technology industry will have heard of unconscious bias training, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to take part in the unconscious bias training that CA Technologies has provided to all of its 2,000 employees in Europe, regardless of whether or not they are hiring managers.

The point of unconscious bias training is to make people aware of their biases and ways that they can overcome them.

In relation to increasing the amount of diversity in the technology industry, by making people aware of their biases, they will be able to address them during the hiring process, recognising when they may be choosing one candidate over another for psychological reasons and hopefully consider other people for the role.

Knowing your biases, though sometimes uncomfortable, helps you to tackle them.

CA’s training began by talking through how people’s brains work – inherently humans are wired to keep themselves safe, and as such they make millions of unconscious choices a day, some of which encourage a human’s fight or flight response.

Depending on our upbringing, social stereotypes and a number of other factors, our brains may be wired to be wary of certain people, usually in such a way that we are more prone to trust and accept people who look and act like us.

By becoming aware of these biases, we can change the way we assess people.

Part of CA’s unconscious bias training involved looking at pictures of real adverts that have been released to the public in the past that could be considered to be biased in one way or another.

One of the adverts, from Belgian company Re-born to be Alive, was for organ donation featuring a woman in her underwear and the caption: “Becoming a donor is probably your only chance to get inside her.”

This wouldn’t fly in the UK (I hope) and I can say it certainly made me feel uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as some of the comments my friends made afterwards when I told them about it.

They gave the justification that this kind of thing was “probably funny” in Belgium, and that women would probably also laugh at it.

Regardless of whether or not women would find this funny in its intended region, sexism didn’t need to be used in a campaign promoting organ donation.

And for those who are thinking you “can’t say anything these days” or that it’s “political correctness gone mad” I’d like to remind you that marketing is not the same as having a group discussion or going to see a comedian – and neither is making hiring decisions or conducting appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Some of the women in my group stated that these adverts would not have gone public if there had been at least one woman involved in the decision making process.

Some men disagreed.

And of course there were comments from the men in the group and some male friends afterwards that adverts such as the Diet Coke advert are also sexist.

I agree that these adverts are just as inappropriate, but pointing out (the significantly fewer) wrongdoings in the opposite direction does not solve the issue.

If anything it highlights the importance of equality – no one should have to endure these generalisations.

Of the adverts we saw that opened my eyes the most about bias was for a rail company offering family tickets.

The advert featured a gay couple with a child, all looking very happy. This could be seen as an attempt to promote diversity, saying families are not always the traditional “nuclear” family involving a straight couple, usually with two kids (one girl and one boy) – and many in my group pointed this out.

But looking at the image I had never considered before that the “acceptable” representation of the LGBTQ+ community is white gay men in a committed relationship who have adopted a child who looks just like them.

Unfortunately it seems that unconscious bias training does not have to be given in every firm, and there is, as far as I’m aware, no standard for delivering it either.

I think going forward if we’re to see any change, unconscious bias training is something we should all have to go through to make sure we are aware of the inner workings of our brains and be better equipped to tackle the disparity this causes.

Not only was it an eye opening experience for me in that I learnt more about myself, but I also learnt, through discussions surrounding my opinion on the training, about the attitude others have towards equality, in the technology industry and worldwide – and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

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