Diversity, a conscious look at unconscious bias

By Emily Mangnall, People & Talent Manager November 25, 2019

Now is the time to be talking about diversity. Equality is at the forefront of thought and policy for governments, regulators and society in general, where senior leaders, celebrities and the public are speaking out. The case for diversity is apparent in the arts, with statistics from Arts Council England and their National Portfolio Organisations highlighting that in 2015/2016 only around 11% of the workforce is Black and minority ethnic. Press surrounding the gender pay gap in medium and large UK companies has only added fuel to the fire. Sitting alongside these shocking statistics is a growing body of research which shows the significant advantages of a diverse workforce. For example, McKinsey found that companies within the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to see financial returns, highlighting how diverse workforces can achieve better results. Diversity breeds innovation and creativity, where naturally people with diverse cultural or educational backgrounds will approach tasks and projects differently, allowing out-of-the box thinking and a more robust approach to risk evaluation and awareness – invaluable skills to the creative and arts industries.

A major barrier to achieving greater diversity is often unconscious bias. In the rest of the blog I will explore the concept, its effects and the steps companies can take to reduce its impact in the workplace.

What is unconscious bias?

Biases are prejudices in favour of one thing against another, through an unfair comparison. Unconscious biases are implicit, usually social stereotypes about certain groups that individuals form outside their own cultural awareness. Research has proven that only 2% of decisions are made through conscious thought, leaving 98% as speedy, automatic, associative unconscious decisions. These decisions are often removed from our instinctive feelings or rational thought processes. The result is that our brains categorise people around the most easily observable things and automatically assign presumed traits of ability, personality or skill without having evidence to support the presumptions.

The effects

Bias can take many forms including confirmation bias, affinity bias, beauty bias, conformity bias, implicit association and the halo and horns effects. These play out in most interactions of everyday life and can have a large impact.

Your biases can get in the way when selecting candidates, deciding who should represent the team at meetings or offering promotions. In relation to theatre, there has been much press attention on the West End’s all-white casts including Julian Fellowes’ Half a Sixpence or Howard Baker’s In The Depths of Dead Love, even with the setting of ancient China. This is also the case in academia, as according to research at Harvard Business school Black and ethnic minority applicants have begun to ‘whiten’ their CVs; changing or shortening their names and deleting references to their race to avoid this selection bias.

What can we do?

The impact of unconscious bias is profound. We cannot eliminate bias, but it’s important to think what we can do to minimise it. Obviously, it’s not a simple task but when casting or making any business decisions the following guidelines may help:

The first step is to drive individual self-awareness. How often do we find ourselves automatically making assumptions or leaning towards certain individuals with no rational reason why?  The Implicit Association test has been designed to help people try to recognise what their biases are. Why not challenge yourself and see how you perform? We can also work in teams to do this, keep an eye and ear out for it and call it out where we see it happening.

In the recruitment process one technique we use at Spektrix is to create a recruitment checklist before meeting candidates so we’re clear what skills we want the person in role to have, not the ‘type of person’ we want. We agree the interview schedule and questions across the group of interviewers, so all candidates have a fair and consistent experience and we can make sure the best candidate is hired for the role no matter their colour or background. Why can’t this be the same within casting and the arts? Colour blind casting has been a term thrown around but I’m not sure is actually implemented. Employing the best actor for the job works in theory but not in practice, and this is part because of unconscious bias, ultimately something out of our direct control. We stereotype characters on pre-determined judgements or what we’ve seen in previous productions or film adaptions, reducing the actor to a certain image fit. However, theatre is a representative place – creativity allows people to portray trees, animals and all sorts of mystical characters. So, if we can allow this, why can’t we allow diversity in our productions?

Beginning to think about, admit to, and tackle unconscious bias will naturally lead to a more diverse and productive environment. A fair environment where all can participate and reach their potential is the ideal, but to do this a conscious effort needs to be made to tackle unconscious bias.


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