Unconscious Bias Roundtable with the Anthony Walker Foundation

May’s Community Roundtable focused on unconscious bias in the workplace. Unconscious bias is a term that describes the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control. It impacts everyone in ways we don’t even realise. We aimed to discuss how unconscious bias effects the way that we work and what we can do about it.

Ilona Alcock, Director at Elevate, chaired the discussion with attendees Jen Whyley – Agent, Lauren Rosegreen – Invisible Cities/GM Mayor’s Charity (Lauren R), Christopher Owen – Manchester Pride, Georgia Fitzgerald – Juice Academy/Tangerine, Lauren Long – Smooth HR (Lauren L) and John Williams – Anthony Walker Foundation. We were kindly hosted by Clockwise in their gorgeous Linley House office space.

John gave a fascinating opening talk on the brilliant work that the Anthony Walker Foundation does in tackling racism and inequality in the North West. John used scenarios from his own career in the police to portray how unconscious and even conscious bias continues to affect the lives of minorities, highlighting the fact that the number of racially motivated crimes is growing every year.

Lauren R commented that the scenarios resonated and she felt that herself and many people of colour could connect with them.

Ilona brought up the fact that many people blame bias in organisations such as the police on a few “bad apples” but raised the question of how many “bad apples” do there need to be before you admit that it’s a systemic issue? Jen noted that this often comes from a refusal to accept something you haven’t personally experienced, ignoring the issue even if 100% of the oppressed group claim to have experienced it. Georgia pointed out the fact that institutional racism allows the bias to exist as it allows people to remain biased while still following the rules. John added that it’s not just individual people, it’s the wheel of the organisation that is normally the problem.

Christopher remarked that the word “unconscious” allows a defence for the individual or organisation. He continued that policy, procedure, strategy etc needs to change too and it can’t just be a tick box exercise or workshop. Lauren L added that many companies pay lip service by running workshops but then claim that some training can be “too radical”. Christopher responded that in situations like this, it often helps to relate issues to how it helps the oppressor, i.e. how patriarchy negatively effects men as well as women.

Georgia picked up on the importance of involving as many people as possible in decision making to avoid a top down approach which often leads to exclusion of ideas and groups. Jen added that it sometimes only takes a couple of people in an organisation to “not get it” to stall progress entirely.

John says that this top down approach can sometimes simply be down to arrogance and the idea that “higher ups” know better. This also makes it difficult to question decisions and approaches. The “higher ups” are also often too arrogant to ask for help with things that they don’t understand i.e. menopause, BLM, LGBTQ+ issues etc. Assumptions are therefore often made without actually consulting the groups affected. Lauren L noted that tribunals in particular offer a blanket approach, a system is followed to ensure that everyone is treated equally which can actually lead to exclusions. Ilona concurred, stating that treating everyone exactly the same doesn’t work as we all have different needs.

John said that it is important to challenge bias, but you can’t make peace with a clenched fist. He recommended the CUDSA (Confront, Understand, Discuss, Solution, Agree) conflict resolution model. Lauren R pointed out that it’s exhausting and draining to be the person who is consistently challenging and pushing for change, this is why allies are so important as it takes the strain off the oppressed group or person. Christopher said that challenging bias isn’t your job and you’re not getting paid for it, the organisation should be doing that job for you. He advised hiring an external consultancy, adding that this costs money so organisations should definitely want to see actual outcomes from it. Lauren L also noted that open discussions in offices can help to change the status quo, and Jen added that networking and sharing with a wider group can help. Ilona agreed that equality, diversity and inclusion needs to be a priority for businesses instead of just sitting on top of your day job and providing more work, often for the people who are experiencing the bias.

In conclusion, unconscious bias in the workplace is an ongoing issue that will take more than just a top down approach to solve. Awareness is increasing but not at the rate or pace that we need for real change to happen. A collaborative approach is best when it comes to dealing with bias in the workplace as it is often systemic and will take more than a couple of dedicated people to change.

Thank you to all of the attendees for contributing to a fascinating discussion.