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Unconscious Bias

By Hári Sewell

Posted: Thursday November 13 2014

The concept of unconscious bias has been given a new found privilege in terms of the paradigms used for scrutinising unfairness and inequalities. This blog explores the implications of this new attention being given to unconscious bias. 

The concept of unconscious bias has been given a new found privilege.  This holds opportunities.  This new attention to the driver of inequality comes in a period in the wake of explicit challenges the authority of the Equality Act 2010 by the Coalition Government (search for the review of the Public Sector Equality Duty and see unofficial commentary).  Many in the field of equalities testify to a decline in activity intent on addressing inequality.  This is a result of an ideological shift justified by, and fuelled by the contraction in public sector finances.  The new wave of requests for training on unconscious bias represents a turning point and should perhaps be welcomed.

 

On the other hand however, this attention on unconscious bias should be scrutinised deeply.  ‘Unconscious bias’ implies a lack of malevolence and reduced culpability.  If it’s unconscious, it’s unintentional.  The use of the word ‘bias’ described a process rather than an outcome.  This is a good strategy for avoiding explicitly exposure to, and analysis of, the real cost to individuals, groups and societies as a result of inequalities.  Bias can result in deaths (e.g. doctors are less likely to diagnose depression in men and the lack of support leads to higher proportions of suicides).  It is not just an unfortunate personal struggle. 

 

Bias retains a focus on individual and interpersonal interactions, in the face of clear evidence of systemic inequalities.

 

How helpful is the privilege given to ‘unconscious bias’ when there is active discrimination against many groups; when misogyny is still rife (see the case of Caroline Criado-Perez as just one example).  How unconscious is it when there is a body of evidence illustrating how bias has detrimental impacts on Black people in mental health but there is a lack lustre attempt to address the consequential inequalities?  What about systems that enshrine inequalities, such as recruitment processes that rely on networks?  These are systemic problems and not unconscious bias.

 

At some level it appears that at some people are attached to their prejudices, and worst still, that these are fuelled and exacerbated by popular culture, the media and art.  These prejudices lead to expectations about outcomes, which affect the effort put into change.  For example, if there is a collective view that Black nurses have more performance issues, when the data that shows a massive variation in disciplinary cases based on race, this is less likely to evoke sturdy action to bring improvements.  These are not unconscious processes but active decisions about priorities and resources.

 

A free workshop on unconscious bias will be delivered at the 5th Year Anniversary of HS Consultancy in Manchester, 5th December 2014.  See details here http://www.hsconsultancy.org.uk/events/1-hs-consultancy-5th-year-anniversary-worskhop-reception


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