How to combat unconscious bias

I recently had the pleasure of facilitating a session for Ambition School Leadership for a wonderful group of would be head teachers on the subject of diversity. We covered many subjects but the one that seemed to capture their imagination was ‘unconscious bias’.

So what is unconscious bias?

Well, one definition is as follows:

‘Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Of course our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.’

So why was this relevant for this session? As we were talking about diversity at this workshop, we looked at some statistics for teaching staff. Some of the statistics are surprising: 97% of English state school headteachers are white; there are 30 black male headteachers in England’s 21,600 state schools, and meanwhile the percentage of pupils from BAME backgrounds in some areas is as high as 23% – in some parts of inner London much higher. So what can be done to move this on, and is unconscious bias at play in the recruitment of teaching staff?

First we need to recognize unconscious bias, and so we looked at some simple examples to illustrate our unconscious thinking. There is the well known story about a car accident involving a father and his son. The father is killed in the accident and the son is taken to hospital. He goes into the operating theatre and the surgeon says ‘I cant operate on this boy, he’s my son’. I think most people know this anecdote now, but for some people it takes a little time to realize that the surgeon is his mother. Why? Because unconsciously we think that surgeons are male.

We talked through other roles – think of a plumber, a technician, a soldier and you think of a man – why? Our brain receives 11 million bits of information a second and our conscious mind can only process about 40 bits. So our unconscious mind is processing the majority of the information and our conscious mind only a fraction.

‘We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’

Some of the teachers were more surprised than others by the teaching statistics, but all agreed that things need to move on and that if they could recognize unconscious bias in their own decision making, or challenge it in others, this would improve the situation.

So how could things change for the recruitment of teaching staff? There were loads of ideas about how to change their schools: training staff and governors in unconscious bias, anonymous selection, challenging stereotypes, introducing a totally inclusive culture, reaching out to different communities and setting diversity objectives for management.

We can’t cure unconscious bias, but with self-awareness we can address it.