Overriding our Unconscious Bias


    Elspeth Burrage, National Chairman of the Association of Women in Property explains what Unconscious Bias is, and how it can be overcome…

    Last year researchers at the University of Illinois found that people subconsciously assume that hurricanes with female names are less dangerous than the male variety, so they take fewer precautions. The result — higher death rates. Is this the ultimate, most perverse case of Unconscious Bias?

    Unconscious Bias (UB) is possibly the buzz term for 2015, but actually it goes back a long way and is arguably one of the biggest culprits behind gender, ethnicity and ‘class’ imbalance. We are all conditioned to think and respond in a certain way, whether that is based on implicit prejudice, a feeling of familiarity, preconceptions, appearance and so on. UB applies to all of us, hence it is one of the most important issues the property and construction industry should grasp and deal with.

    UB is defined as a psychological phenomenon. We all have psychological reasons as to why and where we gain our individual biases that affect our behaviour, thought processes and decision-making. There are different forms of UB, including implicit prejudice; a gravitation towards the ‘safe’ or familiar; stereotyping based on, for example, preconceptions of race or gender; assumptions about someone, based on their physical appearance; ‘covering’ ie when people try to disguise part of who they are, for example their class, sexual orientation, a medical issue; and being ‘in group’ or ‘out group’, for example, straight or gay, male or female, Christian or Muslim, leading to overt or unconscious segregation.

    When faced with this barrage of psychological stumbling blocks, it’s surprising any of us make any progress at all. My company, DTZ, with Women in Property under the Mid Career Taskforce banner, is rolling out a series of workshops on UB for our own staff, members and guests. We get involved in role-play, and discussion, to demonstrate how we all succumb to UB and how we can acknowledge and override it.

    So here’s a starter for ten. Be realistic, rather than attempting fundamental change, start by recognising and managing your biases, for example in appraisals and interviews. Look for the facts, be open to seeing and hearing what’s there and don’t depend on ‘rule of thumb’. Add value by working with colleagues to find ways to identify and calibrate skills, ensuring equity above difference. Instead of relying on the usual suspects, give opportunities to others to present ideas, lead meetings and speak at conferences. Recognise how you’re thinking about a situation – is your decision based on rationale, or feelings?

    Let me finish with an anecdote told by a colleague who, very recently, attended a discussion on diversity. As they went through the usual ‘Housekeeping’ they were treated to the Fire Alarm scenario, with the following explanation from the host, “No fire alarm is expected but if there is one, a female voice will signify that this is not a real fire and therefore no evacuation is necessary, however a male voice…”. Is there a hurricane heading this way?

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    Elspeth Burrage

    National Chairman

    Association of Women in Property




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