Think you're not prejudiced? Think again

Our unconscious biases kick in the moment we see someone. So how do you stop judging books by covers?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Nov 2016

There’s a prejudice paradox in business. Few would deny that racism, sexism and homophobia are problems, but no one will ever admit to being a bigot themselves. Prejudices are always something other people hold.

There are two obvious explanations. Either the liberal, corporate realm has been infiltrated by a fifth column of secret racists and chauvinists, or the rest of us are not as unprejudiced as we think we are. The latter seems somehow more likely - and in many respects it’s the scarier thought. 

Unconscious bias affects us all. It’s rooted deeply in our culture and upbringing, and by definition invisible to us unless we look for it.

Unfortunately, looking for it doesn’t actually guarantee you’ll find it. Part of the difficulty is the way we think about biases and prejudices. Mostly, it’s in terms of categories or protected characteristics – race, creed, gender, sexuality, age. Yet while putting people in boxes may make it easier to examine how we think about others, it misses the whole picture.

We have innumerable categories into which to put people, and only a tiny fraction of them have a formal ‘ism’ to look out for. We could have preconceived notions about men with ponytails or tall women who wear heels or older people with bifocals or Brexit voters - the list goes on. Prejudice isn’t just about racism or sexism. It’s about difference.

You know what they say about books and covers...

Appearance often plays a particularly important role here. Yes, if we read that our next interviewee is an Eton and Oxford educated baronet, we’ll probably conjure our fair share of preconceptions, but more often than not our judgements occur in the moments after first seeing them.

Indeed, discrimination based on appearance is rife, in large part perhaps because it's not as clearly defined as racism or sexism. 

‘When I was a temp, I was sent home once because the uniform only went up to a size 10 and I was a size 12,’ says Jessica Williams, CEO of Sidekicks, a recruitment company for support staff she founded after a career as an executive assistant. One of the reasons was to tackle the endemic unconscious bias in the industry.

All too often, she says, employers have a ‘look’ they want - typically one we’d call conventionally attractive – and a prejudice against those who don’t fit it.

‘It’s something we deal with on a daily basis. If you’re hiring a receptionist it’s totally normal to say I want somebody to be beautifully presented. That’s code. It doesn’t mean having a beautifully ironed shirt. Or if they say polished, I learned that it meant painted nails, heels, tights, hair up, full make up. But you can look professional without wearing heels. That’s a problem,’ says Williams.

‘A high value is attached to appearance in our society,’ says Henrietta Spalding, head of advocacy at Changing Faces, a charity promoting acceptance of people with disfigurements. ‘The danger is that people make assumptions not just about appearance but also capacity at work.’ 

Motivation, ability and ambition are all qualities that managers can unconsciously underestimate in people with disfigurements. Unconscious biases being what they are, even employers with good intentions can fall into the trap, albeit often in subtler ways. ‘Sometimes they can almost overprotect, over-support and treat people with kid gloves. That’s obviously not helpful either,’ says Spalding.

What can we do about it?

As individuals, it comes down to trying to ditch your assumptions, and the key to doing that is finding out more of the truth. That could mean simply getting to know a prospective or current employee by their actions and words rather than on superficial preconceptions, or - to take the example of people with disfigurements – taking the time to find out more about any specific requirements they might have.

It just comes down to being a good manager, says Spalding. ‘You have all sorts of personnel issues as a manager, but if you don’t know, you go online, you ask HR, you go and find out.’

If it’s other people – your boss, your client – who have the problem, try getting them to explain their reasons.

‘If we get cross about [clients’ unconscious biases], that doesn’t change anything, they’ll just go somewhere else. So we tend to ask why. You get people to really start to think about what they’re asking for and how ridiculous it is,' says Williams. 'Do you really need front of house staff – who’ll be running around a lot – to be wearing four inch heels all day?’

A caveat

The problem with trying to address our own unconscious biases is that it can cause us to second guess ourselves. When we meet someone and we get a good or bad feeling, is that intuition we can trust or unconscious biases we can’t?

Clearly, it’s a balancing act. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to know the extent of your biases. This implicit attitudes test from Harvard is a sobering experience. It can also help, as an exercise, to just occasionally ask yourself how a person you’ve just met or interviewed is superficially different from you, and what words you’d associate with those differences.

If those words also just happen to describe your first impression of that person, then maybe you need to question your own assumptions a little harder.

Image credit: Ivan Obolensky

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