“I’m not racist but…” Is unconscious bias just human nature?

by Rebecca Dalton

A friend of mine, recently back from a holiday in Yorkshire, commented on how the break had been extra enjoyable because of the friendliness of the locals. I was surprised: ‘Ooh aren’t they all a bit dour up there?’ I said. And then I thought of all the people from Yorkshire I knew or had ever known: warm and friendly every single one. Yet, despite this real life evidence, my ingrained viewpoint had persisted. My next thought was relief that this classic unconscious bias had never caused me to treat anybody from that particular part of the North-East differently from anyone else. But then I had to call myself out again, as I wasn’t even aware I had this prejudice, how can I be sure it hasn’t affected my actions?

Perhaps everyone is convinced they are clever enough to be immune to their own personal prejudices. I have been shocked by my own capacity for self-delusion. Becoming ‘woke’ to the attributes of those from God’s Own Country made me want to explore the wider issue of unconscious bias – is it possible to be completely fair and neutral, or is bias an intrinsic part of human nature?

Professor of Psychology at University College London, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, argues that it’s evolutionarily advantageous for us to be biased: mental shortcuts help us to function in a complex world and have done for millennia. He says ‘thinking slow’ may help avoid knee-jerk reactions but can also backfire: making someone ultra-aware of something could make it even harder for them not to notice it. For instance, Chamorro-Premuzic says: ‘The louder a person’s inner voice tells him he should not pay attention to a [job] candidate’s gender, the more he will focus on the candidate’s gender.’

But Rina Goldenberg Lynch, founder and CEO of Voice At The Table, says being mindful of possible double standards is helpful. In the case of gender bias, for instance, she suggests: ‘Ask yourself, if this were a man behaving in the same or similar fashion, how would I perceive him. Would I think he was being aggressive or uncaring. Or would I internally use the less pejorative adjective ‘assertive’? Would I commend his leadership skills?’

And one Black-British woman of Caribbean descent, says while it may not be possible to eradicate it completely, it’s vital to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists. As a secondary school teacher, she feels she’s developed a ‘gut instinct’ as to when cultural bias may be coming into play. She says sometimes asking a non-confrontational question can allow someone to ‘process their views’ without being embarrassed; like the time a colleague assumed a challenging pupil’s mother ‘was probably a single parent.’ She says: ‘I felt [the colleague] had good intentions as they were trying to look past the student’s behaviour and more to the root cause… once they realised there was no fact to their comment they began to look sheepish and I left it there. I think every day things, such as actively mixing with people from differing backgrounds and groups, and thinking more before making a judgement, go a long way.’

Chamorro-Premuzic argues that if behaviour comes first, thinking may follow. So, a person may have ‘horrible internal biases’ but if they behave in an unbiased way, they (and their company) will develop a reputation for being unbiased, ‘what matters is what other people think,’ he says. Chamorro-Premuzic acknowledges this goes against the trend for authenticity and may sound superficial – or even Machiavellian, but it could start a virtuous circle of increasing diversity and inclusion, whether that’s the recruiter’s intention or not. He believes what’s important is what happens, not what people think.

For me, I think that becoming aware of my bias is essential to changing my internal narrative. In addition, from what I’ve heard so far, a two-pronged approach seems right; training for those who are open to it, and then a system for encouraging, or nudging – or forcing? -  people to behave, while society waits for their thinking to catch up. But I want to continue to explore the different viewpoints on unconscious bias. It’s such a complex issue that this article can only be part of the story – or perhaps the beginning of the story.


Technology: the generational divide. Or is it?

Conventional wisdom would have it that introducing new technologies into a working environment enriched by up to 5 generations, with all the attendant stresses and strains, is bound to add an extra layer of mis-understanding and tension to even the most laid-back office.

But when I see my 80-year old mum navigate her iPad for emails, news, and entertainment, I wonder whether technology needs to be a divider of generations or can act as a bridge between them. After all, I use Skype to communicate with her remotely. I send digital photos of the family.  I download audiobooks for her to listen to while she potters around the house, and I book all her holidays online.

Granted, at the office, the technological expectations of a 20-year old will be vastly different from someone in her 50’s. In fact, we know that 75% of millennials (roughly speaking, those born between 1979 and 1991) regard technology as an enabler across all areas of their lives, compared to only 31% of GenX’ers like myself (1964-1978) and 18% of Boomers (1954-1963).  So how can we use technology to enhance everyone’s workplace experience, and to draw out the strengths of each generation?

Here are some ideas:


Younger generations use their phones for most forms of contact, including taking notes at meetings (where older generations tend to prefer pen and paper) and instant messaging instead of email or face-to-face contact.  They also thrive on instant and consistent feedback, and this is where technology can help.  In a traditional setting, much experience is conveyed through mentoring relationships.  But today’s more  flexible working conditions can make this difficult. This difficulty could be addressed with ‘remote mentorship’ where the mentor is a person who likes to maintain an office presence, but the mentee prefers a more agile approach to work.  In this type of pairing, the mentor can pass on insights from on-site company meetings and convey the significance of personal relationships to the more physically-remote mentee.  Separately, technology makes it easier to adapt and compromise.  In the instance of a more traditional approach to mentoring, for example, the relationship can be taken to a more remote level after a few initial face-to-face meetings, thereby blending the communication between in-person meetings and online contact.

Generational Perceptions

As one executive puts it, “In a multi-generational workforce, there is potential for negative stereotyping. Older workers may perceive millennials as entitled, tech-obsessed or too eager to challenge norms while millennial employees could see previous generations as being ‘stuck in their ways’ and difficult to train. Organisations need to take steps to ensure managers overcome their unconscious bias,” (The challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce, Forbes 17 March 2016).

Could we use technology to diffuse stereotypes?  We could, for instance, let people tell their stories via short videos and let them upload these to a work portal, for everyone to see.  Technology can also be used to draw out the strengths of the various generations. For instance, the enthusiasm for innovation of younger workers can be tempered by the experience of more mature workers in understanding the costs and risks involved in innovative ideas.  Various analytical programmes, for instance, can be used to measure risk and cost of new ideas incubated through a company’s innovation centre.

Employee Engagement

The one thing all employees have in common, regardless of age, is the desire to be engaged at work. A number of companies have already started using HR software that allows them to develop and encourage each person individually, based on their own preferences, strengths, and experiences.  This allows managers to be more in-tune with individuals’ successes and developmental needs.  A more individualistic approach helps dispel stereotypes and rash unconscious judgments and, as a consequence, allows each person to contribute with their very best.

So, while our technological preferences appear to divide the way we live and work, in reality, technology offers many more solutions that allow us to focus on our united strengths and bridge those differences.

To join the discussion on this topic, join us on 4 October at our panel event Connecting Three Generations in the Workplace

That was the month that was… September

Rebecca Dalton

by Rebecca Dalton

The London Fire Brigade has criticised a game on the ITV2 show Love Island called the ‘Fireman Challenge’ for perpetuating the stereotype of the ‘muscle-bound’ male firefighter – and for using the term ‘fireman’ which was abolished by the service in the early 1980’s.

The brigade’s highest ranking female officer Dany Cotton argued that getting rid of ‘lazy clichés’ would change the public’s attitude and encourage more women to join the service. Currently only 6% of firefighters area women.

So, which other workplace stereotypes are more than ready for retirement?

How about ”Harassed Working Mother” apparently constantly in the midst of some crisis or other, both failing and flailing. I’ve never met her, have you? I mean, I know lots of working mums, and don’t get me wrong, boy are they busy. But they also tend to be more organised, more efficient, more totally together than anyone else on the planet.

Or what about “Lonely Female Boss” who’s sacrificed everything for her career just so the rest of us can sagely nod and agree you can’t have it all. Nope, don’t recognise her from my contacts list.

And, Oi! You lot over there: “Blonde,” “Essex Girl,” “Sassy Working-class Loudmouth (with a heart-o’-gold.)” Give it a break will you? Come back onto our screens when you can manage three-dimensions.

And now here’s my heroine of the month, someone working in four – or possibly five -dimensions: astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who has been awarded the Breakthrough Prize for Physics, for her work in discovering radio pulsars. It’s a mere 44 years since her two male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the same research. Dame Jocelyn’s work had been vital in identifying these tiny neutron stars that spin across galaxies far, far away, but her name was left off the citation. Now she’s finally had her contribution recognised, Professor Bell Burnell will donate her £2.3 million prize money to a new scholarship for groups currently under-represented in physics such as women, ethnic minorities and refugees

Perhaps working in so vast an arena as the universe, tracking objects that are possibly billions of years old, and light years away, has helped Dame Jocelyn remain sanguine about earthly setbacks. She said: “I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize. If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.”

My kinda girl.

Summer in the City, everyone is away..?

It’s August, so the hall is full of suitcases and beach towels and flip flops. Right? Hmm. Maybe not. If you don’t have kids, probably these weeks were hatched off on the holiday chart by your more fecund colleagues weeks ago. And while a quiet office and the promise of quieter beaches when you do eventually get away might compensate somewhat, I remember, in the years BC (before children), a feeling of being slightly out of sync with the way of the world. I imagine that’s what it can feel like for anyone whose norms and rituals are slightly different from those of the public at large. Like if you happen not to celebrate Christmas or Easter. Or if you’re the only vegetarian in a group of friends debating dinner plans. Or the sole dad at the school gate. Things that no-one, including those who don’t entirely ‘fit in’ pays much attention to, yet can develop from minor incongruencies into full-blown resentment and, potentially, conflict.

Here’s an example: I have a friend who is a senior manager of a team of in-house lawyers in a large company. She’s in her 40s, unattached and unencumbered.  As a manager, she understands and respects her colleagues’ need to cater to their families, take time off during school holidays, and to take longer periods of time to care for smaller children (including parental leave). While she bears no resentment towards those who are part of this well-established societal norm, she does feel niggled that she cannot participate in that part of life. Whenever she has broached the subject of extended time off for anything other than to have a baby or look after someone - a category protected by law - her manager dismisses it as something that she ought to be able to cover with holidays. This of course doesn’t work for her as she’d like it to and, as a result, she feels resentful towards her boss, her colleagues who don’t have this problem and the imposition of society’s preferences for families which, once noticed, seems to pop up everywhere.

Is this something that can be avoided? After all, each one of us has felt excluded at least once or twice before. Think of the time way back at school when maybe you were always one of the last kids to be picked for a team. Think of how the shops seem to sell sizes of clothes or shoes that are just too small for you. Think of how, if you’re single at a certain age, life around you seems to cater to couples only and you might even be dropped off social invites because you are one instead of two.  And so on, and so on.

But being different isn’t something that we can or would want to change. We are who we are and there’s a greatness to that which is much more precious than the pain of feeling excluded.  What it does highlight - and this is our point at Voice At The Table - is that each one of us should have the capacity to understand how it feels to be excluded and we should tap into it when we’re interacting with someone who’s different from us, especially at work.  At work because, not only is it the nice thing to do, but also because if we’re mindful of this and are empathetic to it, we can make the person feel more included and therefore more committed, enthusiastic and appreciative.  A positively- tuned person will be a more pleasant colleague, a better contributor to the team and, as such, to the business.  In other words, being aware of our differences is an opportunity to turn exclusion into inclusion in a way that eliminates the negative psychological impact and yet continues to deliver the positives of our different experiences.

So as go I off on our annual family pilgrimage to the beaches of France, I think of my colleagues to whom I’m grateful for taking time off later in the year and staying behind to interact with clients who are captives of summer in similar ways.  Another reason to celebrate diversity.

That was the month that was… August

Rebecca Dalton

by Rebecca Dalton

Tini Owens has been ordered to stay married to her husband Hugh. The Supreme Court unanimously, although ‘with reluctance,’ ruled that she cannot have a divorce just because she is unhappy. Hugh Owens is contesting his wife’s petition and under British law this means the only way a divorce can be granted is after five years separation; unless it can be proved the marriage has irretrievably broken down because of adultery, unreasonable behaviour, or desertion. Making your wife unhappy is apparently not unreasonable.

The Supreme Court, and the lower courts through which this sorry tale has gradually wound its way, adopted the Ponitus Pilate defence: they only apply the law they don’t make it – that’s Parliament’s job.

Over in Westminster, the Ministry of Justice said: "The current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation.”

This caused a fair amount of panic that the country might be heading for divorce ‘on demand.’ Much like abortion ‘on demand’ this is absolutely beyond the pale in some quarters. Heaven forfend that women’s needs should be met, that their requests should be granted, guilt free, blame free, no fuss. Whatever next.

Meanwhile, tennis star Serena Williams said she’d been ‘randomly’ drug tested five times this year – while some of her competitors had yet to be asked for a single sample. ‘Discrimination? I think so’ was her conclusion. She could be right.

But given the number of athletes who over the years have, unfortunately, accidentally, overslept, not heard the doorbell, or been ‘out’ when the inspectors called, who can blame them for taking the odd shortcut to meet their targets? They probably thought: ‘She’s got a baby for God’s sake: she’ll be in, and she’ll be up.’

New Rules: the iGeneration navigates the digital jungle

by Beatrice Fitzmaurice

We have grown up surrounded by technology: social media and the digital world seems internalised in my generation, particularly those born after 2002. It means those born in the 90s may feel old compared to youngsters born after the millennium. Generation Z, the iGeneration, are those born in and after 1995. However, knowing how to use an iPad at the age of 5 was most likely not the case for many, unlike the sticky fingered swiping of today’s coffee shop reared toddlers. A vtech games console was my sole source of electronic entertainment at that age – and I was born in 2001. From this, we can see a distinctive change even for those supposedly born in the same generation, influenced by increasingly rapid changes in technology.

This new “linkster” generation seems uncomprehending of a time without iPhones and iPads, dependent on them for entertainment, their ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ vital to determine popularity, and sometimes therefore, self-esteem. Conscious of this, this year’s UN International Youth Day – celebrated on the 12th of August – had the theme of ‘safe spaces.’ It promoted physical and digital safe spaces where young people can freely interact and express themselves in environments that are inclusive and respectful. Yet, the digital world can never completely be a “safe space.”

I’ve noticed many teenagers have generated an internal mental forefront.  It's a coping mechanism for the challenges social media presents, such as cyber bullying or even small but abusive comments on status updates and posted pictures.  Young people have become more reliant on need for approval from likes but this mental safe space may also give them the chance to express themselves regardless of whether the rest of the world 'approves' of them.

However, this doesn’t work for everyone, being exposed to all this new digital activity from very young can be more harmful than we realise. It is being naïve to the potential harmful side of technology that can  make the digital world even less of a safe space than intentioned.

Safe and unsafe digital spaces from a young woman’s perspective

Women are often on the receiving end of the worst the internet can offer. But this technological advancement benefits us in many ways. The women’s movement has expanded, media has allowed more awareness of inequality and been at the forefront of initiatives to change this. Sixth former Phoebe Richards believes women have been allowed to be “partially freer to express themselves as there is this kind of new movement by which there is more acceptance and a way for us to communicate our views.” In this way it has effectively created a relatively “safe space” for women to discuss these issues and in this way created a digital community with the same main objective as equality. For example, in 2012, UNESCO’s Gender-Sensitive Indicators for Media (GSIM) was published, focusing on social diversity and taking into account all dimensions of gender. The publication recognises the media’s “effective ways of mainstreaming gender in their actions” and thus it attempts to make the content of articles more “gender sensitive” through evaluating them with the use of the GSIMs.

Despite this, it can be argued that women are still generally recognised more through the eyes than the ears. The need for a good physical image is heightened by the media and in this way, women’s voices are undermined due to the concentration on their bodies rather than their opinions. Fixed images can create clichés about women and entrench prejudices and biases that create challenges for any women who try to draw attention to their opinions.

Overall, there are many ways the digital revolution has expanded the safe spaces available to young women, such as being able to communicate more easily with people of similar interests or struggles. Nevertheless, we still need to be aware that this new network of communication can also put us in danger and creating mental safe spaces can be the way to protect oneself.   We might be technical natives, but we still have a lot to learn about navigating social media in such a way that doesn’t leave grave new scars on our psyche. It's a jungle out there; don't let it ensnare you.

That was the month that was… July 2018

By Rebecca Dalton

Rebecca Dalton

She was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar – that much is true. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t need anyone else to pick her up and turn her around, make her into someone new. This sister was doing it for herself. The 28-year-old native New Yorker beat veteran Democrat, and predicted future party leader, Joe Crowley in the primary ballot for November’s important mid-term elections. It caused a major shock to the Washington establishment, and a minor outbreak of unfortunate ‘dad music’: Crowley marked his defeat by picking up his guitar and dedicating a rendition of ‘Born to Run’ to Ocasio-Cortez.

It certainly looks like nothing’s gonna stop her now; if she wins her place in the House of Fun (aka Congress) she’ll be the youngest woman ever elected.

And that really is enough dreadful puns on terrible 80’s pop songs.

Meanwhile, you may remember a year ago the BBC was forced to reveal the pay packets of its highest earners. Cue much astonishment that so many men were paid so much more than so many women.

Auntie promised to do better. Several high-profile white, middle-aged men were given very public pay cuts. But, learning a trick or two from governments past and present, this year the Beeb altered the way it presents the figures. The production arm has been hived off and is called BBC Studios; as a commercial entity it doesn’t publish how much it pays its stars. This means many top presenters have conveniently fallen off the best paid list, and others such as John Humphrys only have the part of their salary paid by the licence fee in the public domain.

It was a cunning plan and should have highlighted the increasing proportion of women edging into the top salary brackets, while fudging the issue of the stark pay differential with men.

The new figures were revealed, and (drumroll…) ta da! Now there are no women at all in the top 10 highest earners. Claudia Winkleman is still head girl: but now down at number 13 on the list.

Good Job!

In Praise of Show-Offs

You may have come across the twitter hashtag #ImmodestWomen and wondered what it’s all about.  It caught my eye because it seems another excellent example of the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ behaviour asked of women:  on the one hand, we are expected to be humble, compliant and supportive of others; on the other hand we’re told to promote ourselves – particularly in the context of our careers – showcase our strengths and talk more about our own achievements.

To give you some context, #ImmodestWomen is a hashtag introduced by Dr. Fern Riddell who dared to insist that her hard-earned PhD title form part of her twitter handle. A backlash of comments from men berated her for being immodest, lacking humility, even being vulgar. By simply showcasing her expertise, Dr. Riddell was publicly shamed for not conforming to society’s expectations of women to be modest, well-behaved, not showing off.

How do we strike the balance between society’s – and frankly, our own - expectations of humility with the need to self-promote at work so as not to lose out to those (mostly men) who do it so well?

At Voice At The Table, we have a talk entitled ‘The Art of Female ‘Blagging’ with Integrity.’ Here’s how it works:

My good friend and associate Cara Moore and I recognised a while ago the double-edged sword society had dealt us. To generalise, men seem to be at ease ‘blagging’ their way into promotions and pay rises by exaggerating their achievements and abilities, while (again in general) employing those tactics made women feel uncomfortable.

After much discussion we came up with a way of ‘showing off’ which we think feels more natural to women. In other words, turning blagging into bragging – but doing so based on actual achievements and confidence in our potential. Hopefully it negotiates the fine line between what feels right, and what we as women need to do to be seen and heard.

We came up with our own acronym BLAG which captures the elements that make the term ‘blagging’ more palatable to women:

B stands for Bright: Being visible by speaking up, contributing without hesitation or self-doubt, confidently applying for stretching tasks, and asking for that title, promotion or pay rise. We should aim to be bright like a beacon and be known for our strengths and unique talents.

L stands for Learned: Many of us are experts in our fields, and this is important. Whatever we say or do, we need to be comfortable that we can back it up with substance. For many women, this is the reason the term ‘blagging’ feels unnatural – we think of it as a cover-up for actual knowledge. Not so for most of us, who know much more than we give ourselves credit for. Learned means not only knowing our ‘stuff’ but remembering that we do!

A stands for Audacious: This is where we must ask ourselves to ‘just give it a go.’ Often, before we try something new or more daring, we talk ourselves out of it before we even begin: ‘I’m not good enough. I don’t have the experience. They would never agree to it,’ pipes up our unhelpful inner voice. We have dozens of reasons for not doing something instead of just going for it. So being audacious is about silencing that inner critic and ‘JFDI’*.

G stands for Gutsy: Gutsy is about being brave enough to tie these three elements together and take action to BLAG by being visible, known for our expertise and knowledge, and unafraid to step up.

So, while shouting from the roof tops about how good we are is something we prefer to leave to others, there is no shame in adding those well-earned initials that follow your name. Thank you, Dr. Fern Riddell for standing up for yourself and for BLAGging with integrity.

* For those of you who are wondering, JFDI stands for Just Flippin’ Do It!