Last week I walked into my local pharmacy and was greeted by a young Asian man and I immediately started asking him very specific questions. He interrupted me and politely said “Sorry, I’m not the pharmacist, I’m a pharmacy assistant, but I’m sure the pharmacist would be able to help you.” I was so embarrassed and apologised but he very politely said “No worries, it happens all the time. Everyone thinks I am the pharmacist.” What he didn’t say but was implied was “…because I’m male and Asian”.
Sexist, racist, me? Couldn’t be! It was a classic case of unconscious bias on my part, and apparently, on the part of lot of the pharmacy’s customers. Unconscious bias is where we are not even aware of the biases we have. Everyone has unconscious biases, and in leadership unconscious bias can seriously impact communication, decisions, judgment, performance and results.
Here is how a leader, Oshana De Silva, the head of risk, small business, at National Australia Bank shared her ‘aha’ moment around unconscious bias.
“My daughter, who is 4, was preparing for show and tell in her new kinder class. She decided to take her favourite dinosaur Sophie to school and we planned what she would say and even practised it and she was so excited.
“The day arrived and she carefully took Sophie to school, the occasion marked by a pink bow around Sophie’s neck. That evening after school I asked her how she went. But she was very low-key about it and then she blurted out” ‘Mummy, my friends said girls don’t like dinosaurs.’ My heart fell to my boots. But I didn’t know then that these words would come to haunt me.
“A week or so later I attended a business breakfast where they presented some stats. They said 41% of men wanted workplace flexibility. I had a big ‘aha’ moment. I realised I had spoken to all my female team members about workplace flexibility, but never to any one of my male team members. I had my own grown up version of ‘Girls don’t like dinosaurs / Men don’t want flexible work arrangements.”
Even if we think we don’t, as leaders we can all have unconscious bias. What is your version of ‘Girls don’t like dinosaurs?’
The story had an immediate impact on the other leaders in the room. Using a personal story like this one is a powerful yet effective way to frame the conversation around exploring something as difficult to get a handle on as unconscious bias.
But there is hope. As journalist Fiona Smith, in a recent BRW article, states: “The point is we are all biased, but as intelligent, thinking people it is incumbent on us to question our responses and decisions to ensure we do the right thing.”