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26 Aug

Strong & Weak Associations: Unconscious Bias

What will be your response when I say the words “Johnny Johnny”. More often than not, without a blink of an eyelid, it’ll be “Yes Papa”. Likewise the words “Baa Baa” … will elicit an immediate reply “Black Sheep”. And the list may go on.

We learnt nursery Rhymes in our childhood, and they are a good way to understand the what we mean by “associations” in our mind. Learnt by way of repetitions, the rhymes have made their way into our unconscious mind and any reference to the first few words of the rhymes triggers an automatic response. These associations are also called bias and they impact our decisions at workplace.

Unconscious Bias …  what is it?

At any given moment, we’re exposed to approximately 11 million bits of data, but our mind can process only 40 bits at that moment. To make sense in this world, our brain makes short cuts. For example, you are walking on a deserted street at 12 midnight, and someone taps on your shoulder. Your first reaction (and most likely a fear-based reaction) is the result of your unconscious minds guiding you. When you see your friend, your conscious mind has taken over and you know you are not in any danger.

The short cuts that our brain has programmed are called biases. When these biases are beyond the realm of our conscious mind are known as unconscious Bias. Our lack of awareness of these biases makes us oblivious of their impact on us and on people around us. It goes without saying that their impact on others may not align with our intent, as the behaviour caused does not arise from our conscious self.

Unconscious Bias At Work: Personal Experience

In mid-2018, in a casual conversation with a professional associate, Meena(not her real name), I made reference to a meeting with Diya another professional associate. Both Meena and Diya are from the same industry. As it turns out, Diya is Meena’s ex-boss’s daughter.

Couple of months later, I happened to meet Vibha, a well established professional in her field, just to realize Vibha was Diya’s mother. The next time I spoke with Meena and mentioned meeting Vibha, it was my epiphany moment for me.  Meena’s simple response “Could you share Vibha’s number? It would be wonderful to connect with my ex-boss”, turned out to be the mirror starkly reflecting my own unconscious bias.

“Oh my Goodness! This can’t be happening to me”, I thought to myself. Why didn’t I think of Vibha as being Meena’s ex-boss, when I clearly remember Diya was Meena’s ex-boss’s daughter? If you’re wondering what the missing link is, it was a case of weak association of the word “mother” with the word “boss” (or ex-boss)

Weak Association: What Is It?

As I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, mothers traditionally did not work and, hence, I did not think of a woman as an “ex-boss”. In my mind, the association between “mother” and “ex-boss” was weak. Though there was never a conscious thought that the “ex-boss” as being a “father”, I did not also connect the word “mother” with “ex-boss” … the unconscious bias at work.

Elaborating on weak associations, you may have heard the story of a father and son in an accident. The father dies on the spot and the son is brought to the hospital in a critical condition. The surgeon refuses to operate on the child saying “He is my son”. What is the relationship between the surgeon and the son?

The answer is that the surgeon is the son’s mother. Irrespective of who gets exposed to this question, the answer “mother” rarely comes to the mind at the first go. The reason clearly is the mind does not associate the word “surgeon” with “mother” (female) very easily.

If we flip the same scenario, and a mother and daughter meet with an accident, but here the mother dies and the daughter is brought to the hospital in critical condition. The nurse receiving the child starts crying out loud “She’s my daughter”.  For us to imagine the “nurse” as “father” (male) is even more difficult than imagining mother as a surgeon.

Just as weak associations are a reality, the strong associations are also reality. We associate “nurse” very strongly with “woman”.

Weakening The “Bias”

Going back to the personal experience, I could have dismissed the incident as one-off case and continued to think “I’m not biased”. Instead, I chose to acknowledge the bias, and in the process allowing the bias to weaken itself. Next time I hear the words “ex-boss’s daughter”, I will perhaps ask whether the ex-boss is a mother or father. Acknowledging my bias will help me next time not to take the term “ex-boss” as a “male” …. for granted

Becoming aware of the “unwanted associations” are helpful in getting past our unconscious biases, which may not be serving us well.

How does this matter?

All our workplaces have been dominated by men. Leadership positions have been held by men. The most coveted roles have all been held by men. Since we have not seen women in the leadership roles, the association in our minds of “Women” and “Leadership” may be weak. This weak association makes us to promote men as leaders; even though in our conscious mind we know the woman is also good. Our unconscious programming decides to promote men, continuing what we have experienced in the past.

Similarly, during recruitment interviews, you may unconsciously be favouring men over women for certain roles. This bias causes us to outweigh the all strengths the women in the candidate pool brings to the role.  

Biases are real. Biases are human. Biases do not make us bad people, and at times they lead us to make sub-optimal decisions.

What’s the solution?

The solution is easy:

  1. Acknowledge the bias as soon as you realize them. Getting defensive and beating yourself up (mentally) for having the bias does not help. Just acknowledge them.
  2. Allow others to call out your biases and make you aware of them. Make it known to other people that you are willing to listen and learn.
  3. Examine your past data. For example, if you have been part of interview panel, look at the resumes you’ve selected vs the resumes you’ve rejected. Do you see any pattern? It will give you a sneak peak into your own possible biases.

Know more about implicit associations by taking the Implicit Association Test https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

Should you wish to implement Unconscious Bias awareness training in your workplace, Ananya-Women@Work are the leading experts in the subject. Get in touch with us at connect@ananyawomenatwork.com for more information.

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