What is bias?

Bias is defined as ‘inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.’ The uncomfortable fact that most of us hold bias’ that can cause harm, unequal opportunity or discomfort for another person can be difficult to accept. But the aim of introducing the concept of bias in the workplace, in a community or group is to recognise that oppression and inequality is ‘the water we swim in’ and we all have the power to change that.

In an article by Kevin S. Crowder entitled ‘White people, recognize the racist water we swim in’, he says:

‘Like too many white people, I was socialized to believe that I could not have racist views if my intent was pure. White people, you can have the best of intentions, not mean anything bad, and still commit acts of racism and micro-aggressions that virtually any person of color would identify instantly! We are all swimming in racism.’

Arguably, it is unavoidable to internalise discriminatory attitudes and ideas which lead us to have deep seated bias’ in a world where structural and systemic oppression is pervasive. But with ever increasing resources for education at our fingertips, it is our responsibility to challenge and unlearn the ideas we have internalised about ourselves and others, as well as being accountable for the ways our bias’ may play out in our behaviours.

Anti-bias training or programmes of work often aim to eradicate or challenge these bias’ – including racism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, islamophobia and misogyny. However, there is no quick fix, and considering your own bias’ simply a starting point; it is a way of addressing the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem but nonetheless crucial to being a safe colleague, friend and peer and an active ally to those experiencing marginalisation.

The acknowledgement of bias is vital at every level of society, especially from those that are in power. The UK Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (2021) was set up in response to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The report concluded that the UK “no longer” has a system rigged against people from ethnic minorities. We strongly challenge this dangerous conclusion, which turns a blind eye to the very real problem of systemic racism in the UK.

Is there bias in my organisation?

Evidence shows that from recruitment to progression, people experiencing marginalisation – including Black and PoC, LGBT+ people, women and disabled people – are failed by their workplaces. And, despite often focusing on progressing equality in the mission and vision of organisations in the charity sector, it is no exception. On the contrary, the sector has a long way to go.

For example, a pressing example of inequality in the sector is systemic racism. You can find an article about racial inequality in the sector and how here. And take action on the underrepresentation of BAME/PoC people in the charity sector through Charity So White, an organisation pointing out acute and systemic patterns of racism in the charity sector

What is anti-bias training?

The term anti-bias has been made popular by workplace anti-bias training which usually aims to tackle explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) bias in the attitudes and behaviours of participants. A government statement on anti-bias states:

‘Although unconscious bias training takes a variety of forms, it is normally delivered as a discrete individual or group session that aims to set out the theory behind implicit bias, provide exercises that demonstrate how such biases might potentially affect behaviour, and suggest strategies to participants for avoiding that behaviour in future.’

Evidence suggests that anti-bias training, however, may not meet all of it’s intended aims. The Equality and Human Rights Commision found that whilst anti-bias training raises awareness of bias, it often fails to change attitudes and behaviours and may even have ‘back firing’ effects. You can read the full report here.

How do I tackle bias in my workplace?

If you are reading this, you are probably invested in tackling bias in your workplace. Anti-bias training is only one tool in the suite of available methods for tackling bias and discrimination in your workplace; and if you are committed to long-term, sustainable and meaningful change then you are likely to need a multi-pronged approach!

This article about the origins of anti-bias training quotes Sady Fischer, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, BlueCross, BlueShield:

“Unconscious bias training is important when it comes to raising awareness but not for action. Unless you give people the tools to do something differently and be more accountable, you can’t create a massive cultural shift across your whole organization.”

So what does it mean to be accountable and what are the other areas of work that can compliment, or replace anti-bias training in order to create a safe, anti-oppressive working environment that applies an equalities lens to internal culture as well as external activity? Here are seven starting points.

1. Be transparent about your intentions and progress internally and externally. Seek guidance and support from organisations like NCVO, and check out their advice on adapting your equality and diversity work during the Coronovirus pandemic.

2. Consider the role your organisation can play in tackling injustice and amplify the voices of organisations led by and for marginalised communities.

In this article by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation they state their aim to become an anti-racist organisation, and employ their specific expertise in change-making to provide a resource ‘rather than publish another list of useful links (which others have already done so well).’

3. Have a long-term plan for systemic and cultural change, and evaluate progress.

Be consistent and committed, because there’s no ‘quick fix’ for inequality. The Equality and Human Rights commission provides eight principles for evaluating anti-prejudice work.

4. Support the development of networks within your organisation.

5. Provide training to raise awareness or and provide tools for employees to address their own bias, implement anti-oppressive practices in their work and life and be active allies.

6. Listen to organisations lead by and for marginalised people and groups like Charity So White, and act on their guidance.

Charity So White, an organisation pointing out acute and systemic patterns of racism in the charity sector, calls on organisations to:

  • Prioritise candid and honest conversations about racism.
  • Publicly acknowledge racism within the sector and within their organisations.
  • Commit to tackling institutional racism within their organisations and in the sector.

7. Use kitemarks, equity programmes, memberships and other forms of consultancy to start getting ‘your house in order’ and communicate about it internally.