Why we need to tackle unconscious bias

How do we combat a problem we don't know we have? By recognising we all have it, says AdRoll's marketing director for JAPAC Cat Prestipino.

This year at Cannes, unconscious bias became a major talking point, with various commentators—most notably Cindy Gallop—drawing attention to what they saw as clear examples of this issue in the industry in 2016. There are no clear answers yet about how you do away with a problem people don't realise they have, but some businesses across the industry are starting to take steps to address it. Among these businesses is AdRoll, which recently took its staff through the process of unconscious bias training in a bid to point out that everyone, no matter how well intentioned, has some level of bias. AdRoll's marketing director for JAPAC Cat Prestipino shares her thoughts on the experience. 

AdRoll is incredibly committed to diversity and inclusion (or D&I as it’s known in the USA). We run a yearly survey on how we’re tracking against diversity and inclusion as a business (ie. do I think people like me get promoted?) and have recently launched a female mentoring programme to try and encourage more female leaders inside the business.

So it’s not very surprising that we put the whole AdRoll team through unconscious bias training two months ago.

Unconscious bias feels like the new big data. Everybody’s talking about it. No one is quite sure what it is, where to get it or what to do with it when they have it.

To put it most simply, unconscious bias is a preference that we are unaware that we have and is outside of our control. It often appears when we have to make quick or automatic decisions and is influenced by our own background, experiences and environment.

Before we completed our unconscious bias workshop our HR team asked people to find out what their potential bias could be. We were asked to complete at least two tests as part of Project Implicit with Harvard University.  

The tests work are based on implicit association. This is a measure within social psychology designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic association between two concepts or objects.

Basically, you see a series of images and asks you to take an action as quickly as possible. Based on your actions, it determines what sort of bias you have. I won’t give too much away but my team and I were pretty surprised by our results.

On a Thursday morning, the whole AdRoll team gathered in our kitchen for our a three hour unconscious bias training. Facilitated by our managing director and HR director, it was a series of different talks, discussions and exercises aimed to take us out of our comfort zones and allow us to openly talk about bias.

Our managing director shared his own experiences of discriminations at the very start of the workshop. It took many by surprise as we usually think of him as such a confident leader but it also was very effective in setting the stage. This wasn’t something that we’d be able to joke our way through or stay silent through. This was going to be a mature discussion, it was going to be uncomfortable and we were going to have to participate.

I must say, I was very proud of the AdRoll team. While at times, there was a lot of passion in the room (particularly when we discussed the role of women within the ad tech industry – a hot button topic at the best of times with a group of highly ambitious young woman) but everyone had the maturity to keep it objective and not fall into a finger pointing situation.

Overall, I found my experience with unconscious bias training really confronting. It was confronting in terms of my own view - no one like to think of themselves racist or sexist - but also in terms of the awareness it gave me of my colleagues and other people.

The one activity I found most confronting was where we were all asked to stand in a single line. Sentences were then read out and if it was true, you were asked to take a step forward or a step back.

If you grew up with more than one book in the house, step forward. Step back if you spoke a language other than English at home. If you have ever felt unsafe walking home alone, step back. If you felt targeted by the police because of your gender or appearance, step back. If you have never skipped a meal because you can’t afford food, step back.

Most people I know struggle to decide what to eat rather than if they can afford to eat. It definitely showcased that we are privileged but at the same time, you don’t know what goes on in other people’s lives.

Cat Prestipino.

Although it’s currently at risk of being a buzzword and potentially having no meaning through overuse, it is really important that we talk about unconscious bias. The whole point of unconscious bias is that it is unconscious. We don’t know we have it but it affects everyone.

The only way to combat it is to recognise it and take a decision on how it’s going to impact our decisions and behaviours.

This story first appeared onStopPress.