Unconscious Bias: Have We Got The Balance Wrong?

As you might expect for someone who teaches people about personal branding, I cover the subject of first impressions – in particular, how they’re formed in people’s heads. And as part of doing so, I often utter the phrase, “And that’s where our unconscious bias can creep in.”

Partly that’s because it’s an important thing to flag and partly it’s because, more and more, people attending my workshop will have had some training on the subject.

And that’s a good thing, because anything that flags up and reduces prejudice is to be applauded. But (and you know by now I usually have a ‘but’ to offer) it sometimes comes with a downside.

Here’s what I’m talking about…

I was running a workshop and had got to the bit about what constitutes good and bad LinkedIn pictures. I was making the point that, more often than not, people will use your photo to form their first impression of you before they even meet you.

One of the delegates challenged me. “What you’re saying is at odds with what I learnt on the unconscious bias workshop. We should never judge people on what they look like, so it shouldn’t matter what photo you choose.”

Shouldn’t or don’t?

And there’s the crux of my issue: there’s how the world should be…but then there’s how it is.

It’s true that unconscious bias is starting to be tackled in a lot of organisations and by educating more and more people, we can change things.

But it’s a slow process (you have only to look at the gender pay gap figures, published 49 years after the Equal Pay Act came into force). And until we reach the Utopian future where how it should be becomes how it is, we need to acknowledge there are literally millions of people who have yet to hear the phrase ‘unconscious bias’ – let alone attempt to overcome it.

Take a reality check

The important thing for your personal brand is to balance your view of what life should be like with what it is like, then make a conscious decision about how to act. Let me explain:

I was delivering a workshop for a group of relationship managers in the insurance industry. Nine out of the 10 attendees were male, nine out of the 10 attendees were white, and nine out of the 10 attendees were over 40 years old.

That’s a perfect illustration of where we’re at, compared to where things should be.

What was interesting was a conversation I had with the female delegate, who was in her late 20s. She stood out from the rest not just because of her gender and age, but because of her image. She had tattoos filling every inch of space on both arms, plus a large plug that was expanding her ear lobe.

Talking about first impressions, she said she knows the moment people meet her they’re pre-judging her as a “rock chick without two brain cells to rub together”. (Which, if you’ve been on an unconscious bias course you would never do, right?) So she always put in the extra effort to show, far from being bereft of grey matter, she was a very clever gal who was excellent at her job.

She’d made a conscious decision

Realistically, she knew she could make her life easier by covering up her tattoos and changing the spacer in her ear. But she said it mattered too much to her to be who she is (authenticity being paramount to a personal brand). So she decided to accept the situation and work around it.

Was it fair to be judged by people’s unconscious bias? No. Was she being pragmatic about the world we live in? Yes.

Of course, someone with a different outlook might think differently. If they felt the bias towards their image was holding them back, they might decide to sacrifice a bit of self-expression in favour of their ambition.

Neither is right nor wrong – they’re just taking into account not only their view of the world, but the fact that others might see it differently. Because simply thinking the world should be free from bias doesn’t mean it is.

Unconscious bias has been a hot topic for a while now, so I’m pretty sure you’ll have an opinion on it – and I’d love to hear it! Has it gone too far? Or not far enough? Should people accept bias is going to happen? Or should they push back more? The comment box is eagerly awaiting your thoughts.

Like this? Share it or join in the discussion…

11 responses to “Unconscious Bias: Have We Got The Balance Wrong?”

  1. Paul Jonsen says:

    Hi Jennifer

    I think you have been quite cleverly provocative here. I applaud this young woman for holding to her values and, yes, you recognised her as being intelligent and good at her job. You make a valid point that there are a lot of people who have not even heard of ‘bias’ unconscious or conscious but I am not sure that they are a reason or an excuse for her to behave differently. We have many examples of people who push the boundaries of cultural acceptability – Mark Bolan and David Bowie are two who to many were quite shocking at the time and are now quite mainstream. This young woman is obviously one of many pioneers and without them, there will not be the change required for people to move towards accepting others for who they are rather for what they look like. I wouldn’t choose this method myself but we all have our own sense of self and as long as it doesn’t hurt or affect our work interactions others we should not be ashamed or ridiculed for expressing it. I believe that why we do not have parity in gender pay so long after the Equal Pay Act is based partly by some men and, yes, some women held back with some misplaced cultural ideas of which can be reflected in this conversation. Gender equality is an issue and a responsibility for all of us – it will happen and should happen today. anyway, what do I know, I am a white, heterosexual male over 40…

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      We definitely need pioneers. It’d be nice if the progress they herald would speed up a bit!

  2. Sok Wah Lee says:

    Unconscious bias is a neurological short cut to conclusions and it is important to recognise its presence.

    To address it would require open minds to challenge these pre-conceptions in a positive and constructive manner.

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      I agree. Part of my point is there are still plenty of in-open minds out there making the decisions.

  3. Colin Smith says:

    Hi there Jennifer, never truer word or words, said.. “there’s how the world should be…but then there’s how it is.” There is also, how I would like the world to be.

    We would all prefer not to be judged, although being judged as good, positive, etc., is not so bad, but as we can’t have one without the other…

    I use a phrase of, “Perceptions are reality.” It does not matter what I would like the other to be thinking or feeling, they are thinking and feeling that way. How I manage and traverse the gap is my problem. How funny, that it always comes back to us, what are we going to do about it.

    I love that the lady with the tattoos continues to be herself, and that is important to her. As you said, she has done her business work and obviously competent in all that she does. She also recognises I am sure, that many will take and hold a negative, less kind, view of her. Whilst we may not like that and that they should know better, they feel what they feel.

    It may turn out that this lady is unable to sustain her career because of this bias, and she seems the sort that will make the shift and go again with something new. If she can turn a few of the ‘middle’ ground around, then she is serving humanity in reducing the bias, generally and specifically. As they will have learned not to read the book by the cover.

    Withholding judgement takes work, beginning with intention, noticing what is triggering us, and then looking inwards and what is going on for me such that I am getting triggered. Seeing the person triggering us as a gift, a learning moment for us.

    If we knew everyone’s story before we spoke to them, the world would be a much nicer, kinder, human place.

    Great piece Jennifer, thank you, made me think.


    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      You’re right that it’s about converting the views of those who themselves are open to that. But it’s folly to think it’s more than ourselves we can definitely change.

  4. Matthew Cox says:

    Great article Jennifer. All our leaders went through Unconscious Bias workshops last year and they were very well received. It was powerful when the presenter said how unconscious bias exists in all of us, even if just for a few seconds in some cases.

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      That sounds like the right balance. It’s the people who take it too far and think bias shouldn’t/won’t exist where I think the reality check is missing.

  5. Meg Burton says:

    Hi Jennifer

    Great piece and definitely thought provoking, I agree having an awareness of unconscious bias is important especially acknowledging how it can affect recruitment decisions however you hit the nail on the head in that it would be impossible to have a utopia where it didn’t exist. Our thoughts, values, beliefs and opinions are developed over time through our experiences from birth onwards and whilst we will change, develop and refine these as we go through our lives, they will all be through our own individual ‘lens’ and personal experience so therefore some unconscious bias will exist in us all.

  6. […] Once the story broke, Ms Brabin made the point that women are judged more harshly than men for their image, but people should “listen to what we say, not what we wear.” This is a point I agree with, in that it’s what should happen, but it’s not how life actually is. There’s a balance to be had between pushing for change and working within the context of where we are. (I wrote about this in more detail in my post on unconscious bias.) […]

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