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The benefits of taking time to tackle unconscious bias

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Could assumptions about colleagues’ race, gender, age and other characteristics be harming your business without you even realising?

Discussion of inequality in engineering is nothing new. Over recent years companies and the wider industry have been keen to demonstrate a commitment to the cause of equality, and have increasingly become more vocal and more robust in this commitment.

As the news agenda once again focuses on the issue, companies have reaffirmed this stance by highlighting clear equality and diversity policies within their organisations. However, words aside, the numbers show there is still a significant problem to be tackled. According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, women only make up 10 per cent of engineering professionals in the UK – the lowest percentage in Europe. Combine that with an even lower proportion of workers coming from BAME backgrounds (just six per cent) and there’s clearly still work to be done.

One way in which we can improve our practices is through considering not just what we say or do, but bringing to light the unconscious behaviours inherent in all of us that can also cause damage. We increasingly hear the term ‘unconscious bias’ and many of us have a basic understanding of its meaning, but there are always other issues that take precedence in our minds. We assign it a lower level of importance than other problems in achieving equality – but to make real progress that has to change.

Unconscious bias encompasses perceptions about race, gender, sexuality, age and ability that can hamper aspects of work from recruitment and retention to progression and day-to-day activity. Increasing our awareness of our unconscious biases allows us to make improvements in all these areas. Recruitment and retention in particular are areas we spend a huge amount of time debating how to improve. Surely, proving to applicants that engineering is an open and diverse industry will help us to achieve that?

Aside from the vital goal of building a fair industry, being able to go into a room with a mind clear of biases will also help us all get the most out of our co-workers. As an example, imagine you’re in a meeting with two male engineers. One is older and louder, while the other’s personality naturally lets his colleague take the lead. Your first reaction will logically be to direct your questions to the first man, assuming he is best placed to answer, but you have no way of knowing that is the case.

As another example, you may work with someone who you remember struggling with workloads when they first started, but has since worked hard to become reliable and trusted. When needing to select people for an important assignment, do the struggles in previous years affect your thinking, or do you base your choice on their more recent performance?

At Air Products, we’re taking steps to find a way to combat the problem of unconscious bias and train our managers to do the same. To this end, we encourage them to develop and maintain four simple habits.

Slow it down. It sounds simple, but pressured or tired people are more likely to slip back into unconsciously biased behaviour. In many cases we need to work quickly, but when possible, we should try to take a more methodical approach to our decision-making.

Question and challenge your thinking. Once we slow down the decision-making process, then we can test our assumptions about people, situations and tasks. We should take note of our own responses and reactions to different situations, thinking back to how we came to a decision and the reasons for it – particularly whether we’re filling in gaps in our knowledge with assumptions. It’s not always a comfortable exercise, but being honest with yourself is key.

Consult with others. Taking other views is important in breaking away from our own perceptions and biases. Different perspectives are hugely valuable in testing our assumptions, especially if they come from outside of our usual network.

Hold yourself and others accountable. We have a responsibility to check and test both ourselves and those around us. As we work harder to notice biased behaviours in ourselves, we should also draw our colleagues’ attention to their own. It takes courage to speak up, but it’s important to lead by example to generate real change. This may mean saying something in the moment or having a quiet conversation with someone later on. Either way, we shouldn’t let the opportunity pass.

To tackle unconscious bias, all of us need to take the time in our daily work to stop, think, challenge and change. As with every cultural shift, change is likely to be gradual, but as it takes effect we will notice a positive difference.

Kelly Paul is a chemical engineer and team leader at Air Products.

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