Guest blog: Unconscious bias – do you know yours?

Unconscious biases are where our personal history and our society’s meet to create our understanding of the world. These biases are shortcuts that enable us to get through the day as smoothly as possible – for example, if I had to figure out what it meant every time someone walked toward me with their right hand extended, I would have less time to think about more important things.


This makes it sound simple, but it’s not.


Imagine that you have two people with very different personal histories, but come from the same society – they should have all the same cultural understandings, right? But they won’t: our experience of society will differ based on our gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, age, social class – any of the protected characteristics, in fact.


And how many of you with siblings have had the feeling that despite growing up in the same household, your experience of childhood was not the same as that of your sisters or brothers?


So at any time, when two people meet, each person is confronted with a complex set of experiences and understandings of the world.


Let’s take two examples: age and social mores.


Until I did my PhD, I thought that my mother experienced gender in exactly the same way I did. When I went to graduate school, I interviewed a woman named Helen Gee, who had run a photography café in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Gee was single, had a child and worked – a set of experiences that were not considered acceptable at the time. When I told my mum this story, she told me that she had used to go this café – and that she had gone with a female friend, not accompanied by a man, which was seen as practically scandalous. I also found out that my mother wore trousers to work (shocking!), didn’t quit her job when she became pregnant (unbelievable!) and planned to return to work after becoming a mother.


The age difference between us meant that despite living in exactly the same place, we experienced very different cities and very different understandings of what it means to be a woman.


My second example is cultural. My husband is only 4 years older than me, but he grew up in Edinburgh. We have many things in common: we both grew up in middle class homes. We’re both English-speaking. We both have a sister.


However, I was shocked to find out that at his primary and secondary schools, corporal punishment was considered acceptable. At my primary and secondary schools, corporal punishment was completely unacceptable. I mean, at my primary school, we had a white rabbit wandering freely through the halls – I suppose that says it all. My schooling was about wonder, creativity and imagination. His was about discipline and obedience.


Even though we’re roughly the same age, our different cultures meant different behaviours were considered acceptable. And if corporal punishment is okay at school, then it would have been viewed as acceptable at home too. If you were a social worker coming from these different cultures, you’d have to adapt accordingly.


In our modern world, which is full of people from different cultures, ages, classes and experiences, anyone involved in safeguarding has their work cut out for them.


As you can imagine, when it comes to safeguarding, the implications of unconscious bias are immense. Our personal and cultural experience leads us to see things in certain ways – we see what we expect to see, and therefore, we can often miss things we’re not looking for.


My tips for addressing unconscious bias are:

  1. Reflect, reflect, reflect. Think about what has contributed to who you are and how you see the world.
  2. Identify your values – we all notice difference (and that’s okay); it’s when we assign values incorrectly to those differences that problems arise. What values do you assign, for example, to poverty?
  3. Develop sympathy by thinking about a time when you might have felt different or excluded.


Jasmine is a trainer, speaker and writer on employee engagement, unconscious bias, and organisational culture. She has worked extensively in the private, public and third sectors. Her clients include the CIPD, BP, Amey, B&Q, and Standard Life. She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas and writes for HRZone. You can find out more about her on her website.


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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this blog. Katherine T Young Ltd & Kate Young disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this blog.

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