Diagnose your unconscious bias in a bid to tackle diversity

Diagnose your unconscious bias in a bid to tackle diversity

Challenging your own personal bias is the first step to tackling diversity.

By Sarah Stimson

#1 Why is addressing diversity in public relations so important?

There are a number of reasons.

If the aim of PR is to reach a wide audience, then it makes sense that the industry is reflective of those audiences. It takes a broad spectrum of different life experiences to be able to connect with those audiences effectively.

Finding and retaining good talent is increasingly cited as one of the top challenges facing the industry by employers.Improving diversity means increasing the talent pool to include those who currently find access to the industry difficult, including people returning to work after a career break for childcare or carer responsibilities, and those from BAME backgrounds.

According to the 2016 National School Census, a third of children under 10 are from a non-White background. Those children will be entering the workforce in the next 8-10 years and the PR industry will miss out on whole swathes of talent if it’s not more inclusive.

It makes business sense. Improved diversity results in more effective teams. McKinsey research on diversity showed that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to have financial returns above industry medians, while ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely. It’s a competitive advantage.

Diversity drives innovation and creativity. For an industry which relies on fresh ideas and new approaches, this is vital.

Clients demand it. Increasingly clients are demanding that their suppliers are more diverse. I was at a diversity dinner recently where heads of HR for large firms were talking about how their procurement departments are making diversity a priority for their suppliers.

There are PR specific examples of this, HP and Levano have both insisted that PR agencies which pitch to them are able to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. I suspect there will be more pressure from clients in the near future.

Finally, the moral imperative. It’s just the right thing to do. A fairer industry which values equality is one which most people would welcome.

#2 How would you characterise the public relations profession's efforts to deal with diversity over the last decade?

It’s slow but steady. Ten years ago, when the Taylor Bennett Foundation was first being established, I had conversations with PR industry leaders who said there was no need for our traineeship programme because there was no business case for diversity. The conversation has, thankfully, moved on since then. There really is appetite among PR employers and the industry bodies to address diversity in all forms, and there are pockets of good practice, but there is still quite a long way to go; social mobility, the gender pay gap, women in top jobs, ethnic diversity, the lack of disabled PR practitioners, and support of the LGBT communities in the communications industry all remain important issues.

#3 Unconscious bias has become an issue within organisations in 2018. What is it, and why is it important?

Research shows that unconscious bias leads to discrimination. Our minds are wired in such a way that we make judgements about people based on stereotypes, even if we don’t mean to. Our biases are influenced by our own experiences, our upbringing and our environment and it’s unlikely that you are fully aware of your own biases. It’s a shortcut to making decisions and it means that groups of people may be unfairly discriminated against.

This video from the Royal Society sums up the issue brilliantly.

Unconscious bias not only affects hiring decisions, but also promotion opportunities, who gets handed the meaty projects, training opportunities, and platforms to speak, so it is really important that organisations recognise it as an issue and address it.

I should also point out that unconscious bias is not the only element at play. Conscious bias still exists too, but I’d like to think that robust HR practices deal with overtly discriminatory behaviour. Unconscious bias is a bit more difficult to deal with because it’s unintentional, but there are steps individuals and organisations can take to mitigate against it.

#4 How can I diagnose my own unconscious bias, and then what should I do about it?

There’s a brilliant free tool, the Implicit Association Test, which you can use to test your own biases against all kinds of characteristics - age, race, sex, religion and many more. The results are for your eyes only, so no one else will see your biases, but if you are really, really honest when you answer the questions you can get a feel for where you own biases lie. It can be uncomfortable reading but it’s worth remembering that absolutely everyone has bias and being aware of what your own are is a very good first step in being able to address it.

In terms of overcoming your bias, your organisation might offer some unconscious bias training which is a great first step, but that training has limitations and there are also a couple of things that you can do yourself.

Widening your own networks to include different groups of people so that you are more empathetic to the challenges they face. That includes women, people from another social class, people with disabilities, the LGBT community and people from other racial groups. This also will reduce the Other Race Effect (ORE) - where individual struggle to individualise people from other ethnic groups than their own (so for example, a white person may struggle to see the difference between two Chinese faces, this can result in seeing Chinese people as one group and enforce stereotypes, rather than as a group of individuals with different character traits). The ORE increases implicit racial bias, so increased exposure to groups other than your own will help you to you overcome that.

Imagining what it’s like to be stereotyped in a certain way and how it would feel to be judged unfairly on those characteristics. This is called ‘perspective taking’ and is proven to reduce bias.

#5 What should organisations be doing to better represent the publics that they serve?

Organisations should be making a move towards having a more inclusive culture and that means making it part of its strategy, practices and habits. There are a number of ways organisations can help employees overcome their unconscious bias.

More broadly, there are other practical steps organisations can take to improve diversity and actively support inclusion.

#6 Can you cite any example of what good looks like?

There are a number of PR employers which are taking steps to combat unconscious bias. Several have given their staff unconscious bias training and there are other practical examples too. Some agencies are using university blind and name blind recruitment for entry-level recruitment to lower the chances of unconscious bias. There is also definitely a move to more professionalised processes for appraisals and promotion opportunities - using SMART objectives for a fairer, more objective approach to measuring performance.

About Sarah Stimson

Sarah is the chief executive of the Taylor Bennett Foundation, a programme to support diversity in public relations. She writes about working in public relations on her blog PR Careers, and is the author of How to Get a Job in PR.

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