Unconscious biases, racism, and culture

I read something last week that sank my heart but, sadly, did not shock me. It was a research paper that said three quarters of Australians who tested for unconscious bias had negative views of Indigenous Australians (ANU, 2020). Now, I want to do something that starts to fix this huge issue and I want to help you to do the same. So, please read on.

The research was conducted over 10 years, assessing 11,000 people from varying locations, and of diverse occupations, education levels and religious beliefs. It was a joint study by researchers at Australian National University, University of Sydney, Yale and Harvard.

To reiterate, the study found 75 percent of a very large cohort of non-Indigenous Australians have ‘implicit bias’ against Indigenous Australians.

I have some understanding of the racism and barriers Indigenous Australians face, yet I acknowledge I could never properly understand that without the lived experience. But I’m well aware of unconscious, or implicit, biases and have trained to balance them as much as I can. In fact Executive Central has some of Australia’s top coaches working with corporate leaders on their unconscious biases.

For more than a decade, Executive Central partnered with a national institute to deliver leadership development for Indigenous Australians. One common story among participants was of how they are often treated differently to other colleagues. For example, non-Aboriginal staff can make an unconscious assumption that an Aboriginal colleague will know about and represent ALL Aboriginal issues, culture and traditions. Those anecdotes spoke to the underlying prejudices of non-Indigenous Australians. This is OUR problem to fix.

Author of the report Siddharth Shirodkar, a PhD researcher at ANU, says:

‘the study presents stark evidence of the solid invisible barrier that Indigenous people face in society. But the data is actually not about Indigenous Australians, it’s about the rest of us.”

And that’s how I read it. I realise we, as corporate leaders, have not done enough work to educate ourselves, or our staff, on unconscious bias and how to be wary of it in decision making, or how we set team culture.

In our workplaces, unconscious biases manifest in decision making; such as the hiring of a white Anglo man over another man with Aboriginal heritage, or over a woman, regardless of who may be the most talented. My colleague Jane Counsel has written previously about how unconscious biases reveal themselves in our ‘fast-thinking’ as prejudiced decision making. After many decades of these patterns in corporate thinking and decision making, I personally believe we need to proactively change recruitment practices to encourage Aboriginal people to apply, and also to work with Aboriginal staff to develop their prerequisite skills towards promotion. And to develop more inclusive leadership mindset and practices.

It’s not only those individuals who suffer because of prejudiced recruitment and advancement decisions, but also our organizations. Australian ASX 200 companies remain conservative in their executive appointments, preferring candidates with similar genders, experiences, and backgrounds.

Putting equity and fairness aside for a moment, a lack of diversity in our organizations is setting them up for failure. It’s well known now that companies with diverse executives and boards tend to outperform those less diverse (McKinsey 2018, AICD 2018). And In our global environment of unprecedented disruption — often defined as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) — diversity of thinking and experiences is vital to prepare and respond to change and disruption. And that deep diversity of thinking, perspective, temperament and experience is often what lies beneath the surface level diversity of gender, age, and ethnicity.

Unconscious biases often infect the processes and preferences that lead to executive teams and boards being composed mostly of men with similar experiences and perspectives. And they inform organization cultures in which people who look and think a little uniquely feel they do not fit in, cannot speak freely, nor use their talents to their full potential in an inclusive environment.

We all have unconscious biases about the things we prefer, sometimes good, other times bad. Unconscious biases about race can lead to inequality and racism. Just as unconscious biases about gender can lead to sexism, and unconscious biases about politics lead to intolerance.

As Shirodkar says: “If you implicitly see Indigenous people in a negative light then that is going to affect all of your interactions and dealings with Indigenous people. We can only imagine the impact of that collective negativity on outcomes for Indigenous Australians.”

What can I, or we, do to positively influence such a huge societal issue? We can educate ourselves about Aboriginal history and experience (Reconciliation Australia resources); we can create more inclusive workplaces and learn to be good allies; we can follow the advice of author Ibram X. Kendi and become anti-racist. And we can learn more deeply about our unconscious biases, and diversity and inclusion.

Please contact me below to ask about our unconscious bias workshops, our diversity and inclusion expertise, or inclusive leadership leadership coaching.

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