Monday, 13 March 2017

Unconscious Bias and that BBC Interview

They were all laughing about it at first. But now the whole thing seems to have turned a bit nasty.

Over the weekend a video clip showing an interview with an expert on Korea went viral.Not because of anything he said but due to the fact that at some point in the interview two of his children came rushing in and were promptly retrieved by a lady who clearly treated the matter with the utmost seriousness and urgency. Both she and the two children disappeared back through the same door pretty quickly. Maybe she had been watching the interview in another room only to see and to her horror, the two children in her care appearing on the screen behind Daddy? Yep that too would have sent me in something of a frenzy.

Fiona Bruce admitted on the news on Saturday that she had been laughing about the video clip all day.

But then social media starting analysing some commentary on the clips and people seemed to get angry very quickly. What had angered some was that many had talked about the lady in question as being the nanny and seemed to be making that assumption because she appeared to be of Asian origin. As it turned out she wasn't the nanny but the expert's wife and presumably mother of the two children as well.
So why is it that so many commentators made this mistake and just how surprising and offensive is it? 

The answer is would seem is to be found in what is commonly referred as our "unconscious bias". Every day we take thousands of decisions and to do so efficiently (though not always effectively and accurately) we allow ourselves shortcuts. These shortcuts are executed by drawing on references in our brain that, already in storage, save us considerable time. In one way it's good and clever process. Without it, our decision taking would be seriously slowed down and we could end the day going to bed still undecided about whether to have chicken or ham for dinner or to bath the children that night.

But shortcuts have their disadvantages too. They often require us to work off quick assumptions and stereotypes that can lead us to draw wrong conclusions (as in this case), cause offence and on occasion too, behave in a way many would consider racist.
Ask any group in public to admit to being racist and they would all attest to being anything but (or at least you would hope so). But the fact of the matter is that none of us work off perfect and pure thinking and we all operate off biases to a point. The important thing is for us to realise this and to actively go after our biases with a view to containing and even eliminating them.

One of the best ways of achieving this is by doing training on "unconscious bias" in the workplace. Just a few scenarios for the trainee is usually enough to convince them that unconscious bias lurks in us all but can be relatively easily addressed. My own company offers training on unconscious bias which is offered as an e-learning package.

And here's a scenario for you. Let's imagine the expert on Korea was not actually the white male in the picture but the lady who looked like she was from that same country or perhaps a neighbouring. What shortcuts would we play in then? And where would that leave the white male? Retrieving the children I suppose - cue an awful lot more stereotyping.

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