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Unconscious bias - why does it matter?

October 29, 2018

On Friday 26 October, more than 120 people came together as part of the increasingly popular Women in Water events series to discuss the topic of unconscious bias.

Keynote speaker for the breakfast event, Arman Abrahimzadeh, gave a thought provoking and inspiring talk. Arman’s mother Zahra, was murdered by her husband in 2010, after 20 years of abuse at his hands, in front of 300 people at the Adelaide Convention Centre. Refusing to remain a victim, Arman has turned his personal tragedy into a message of hope and, alongside his sisters, has founded The Zahra Foundation. The foundation aims to financially empower women impacted by domestic violence. Arman’s message for everyone at the breakfast was that domestic violence does not start with violence, but with disrespect, and that addressing this disrespect in all aspects of our lives is critical to tackling our increasing domestic violence issues

A panel of industry experts then joined Arman following his presentation. Bronwyn Gillian, University of Adelaide; Rachel Barratt, WIA; and Andrew Culley, Deloitte provided an insightful discussion on what unconscious bias means to them and their thoughts on how we can tackle it.

From the panel’s viewpoint, there has been vast improvements in providing more opportunities for participation in the workforce for both men and women, however there is still much to do. As Bronwyn pointed out, “There’s roughly a 50/50 gender balance in the world, suggesting that we have every opportunity to ensure equity in the workforce, which would in turn ensure that we harness the best talent available. But instead, what we’re seeing is that both men and women can have a tendency to some sort of unconscious bias, which means we’re not harnessing the best talent available – that we’re not giving everybody the best opportunity to perform and progress as they may wish”.

The reasons why women are not progressing in their careers are complex – and while unconscious bias is not the whole story, it is part of it. This unconscious bias does not just apply to how men view women, but how society perceives gender. Rachel highlighted that unconscious bias is not just about what others do to you, but also how you perceive yourself, how you behave and what you accept as the norm. “As I progress through my career I now see where unconscious bias has impacted on me, and what I thought was okay back then was in fact probably not okay,” said Rachel.

Arman went on to stress that we can all change our perceptions from what we have grown up with and considered to be “the norm”. For Arman, he has had to unlearn the unconscious bias that took place in his home when he was growing up. “It took me a while to grasp that what I had witnessed as I was growing up wasn’t normal.” He went on to say that, “If you only see male managers, if you only see men leading at home or at work – that’s what you think is the norm”.

There are, however, many organisations tackling these issues. Andrew is a member of the Chiefs for Gender Equity – a group of leaders who have come together to raise all aspects of diversity, especially gender diversity, throughout South Australian workplaces and businesses to drive programs and change that creates awareness.

Andrew reflected that Deloitte employs a 50/50 workforce with only around 28% female representation in leadership positions. Andrew acknowledges that Deloitte  has a long way to go to rectify the leadership situation. “It’s an issue for us because it’s an issue for our workforce. If we employ 50/50, then why don’t we have 50/50 in leadership positions? What talent are we losing out on because we’re not progressing females throughout the organisation at the same rate as we’re progressing males. It’s a problem and we are working through that and setting targets to make it happen,” said Andrew.

As the breakfast came to a close, panel members unanimously agreed that this issue is vitally important and needs further work to address it. Bronwyn emphasised that both genders must be engaged in this discussion to move it forward. "Unless we have both genders engaged in this discussion, we’re never actually going to move forward. There is an onus on women to change things, but we need men as well otherwise we’re not going to go anywhere." said Bronwyn.