“Biased and me? No way!”

Sunaina Chowdhry

Senior Officer - Corporate Communications

These were the exact words that crossed my mind while I was told offhandedly that “everyone has hidden biases”. I am quite sure that this topic would generate a similar reaction in most of us at the sound of these rather conflicting words.

One of the most exciting parts of my work as a ‘communicator’ is that every project opens a whole new spectrum of knowledge. To be able to communicate effectively, one needs to delve deep, really deep into the subject and we inadvertently end up knowing so much more, each day. New topics, new strategies, new people, new media—there’s always something new in what we do.  And so was the case with a recent event: the WL3 Forum on inclusion - focused on driving conversations about “Unconscious Biases And What To Do About Them".

While each of the projects I have worked on has been exciting and challenging in its own way, I must admit this topic was peculiarly intriguing; not just because I barely knew anything about the subject, but because I couldn’t fathom how biases could exist ‘unconsciously’.  I must also admit that this project was no plain sailing. It took several focused hours to understand the topic, some intense brainstorming sessions with our team, getting broader perspectives from a colleague outside the team, several rounds of challenging differing opinions, and a dozen iterations that followed.

The reason why this event was so stimulating is that the topic compels you to introspect. Most of us would like to believe that we are open-minded, welcoming individuals without any prejudices.  All these notions were dispelled by the end of the day-long programme.

So what are these hidden biases? Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick perceptions. According to research, we instinctively categorise people based on factors such as age, weight, skin color, and gender. We also tend to classify people according to educational level, disability, sexuality, accent, social status, and job title (to name a few) and immediately assign certain traits we would expect from the person.

Between the two words “unconscious” and “bias”, the latter one ironically seems far more dominant than the former term “unconscious” - a word that is longer and even precedes it.  The word “bias” has this uncanny capacity to alarm us, so much so, that everything before and after fails to matters. We are predisposed to react more strongly to something that is negative as opposed to something positive, or even neutral. Our defense mechanism is wired up and we immediately decide that we’re not one of the “biased people”.

The crux of the subject lies in the very first word “unconscious”.  None of us wants to be biased—that’s established. But we are human and our personalities are shaped by varied forces which insidiously influence our thoughts and actions.  

A series of conversations, a bunch of activities and a fantastic presentation of the topic through drama opened my eyes to how our thoughts and actions impact not only our colleagues, but people in general. I eventually conceded that my background, experiences, culture, and mindset did have the power to consume many parts of my ‘open-mindedness’.

Someone once told me to connect with people for who they are and not the caricature of their role that you’ve designed and expect them to fit into. Yes, all of us have caricatures we’ve crafted in our minds—of the ideal colleague, the ideal friend, the ideal boss, or the ideal ____________(you name it). And the minute someone’s behaviour is an aberration from that picture, our biases take over. 

What my key learning was? It takes a lot of awareness, conversations, and a great amount of humility to understand where these biases stem from. It’s not an easy ride, but definitely worth breaking your head over to help you grow professionally, but most importantly as a human being.