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5 Biases You May Have That Are Affecting Your Work Environment (Not For The Better)

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ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

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Written by: Avanti Deshpande

Having a diverse workforce and fostering inclusion is an important goal that most organisations strive to achieve. However, building a workplace that is both diverse and inclusive does not happen overnight, and maybe hampered by many factors. Unconscious bias is one such factor and takes many forms at the workplace.

What are unconscious biases, one may wonder: well they are biases that we are unaware of. It is a bias that occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain making rapid judgments and assessments of people and circumstances, influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.

Representational image.

What Is Bias? How Does It Work?

Bias means an inclination, a tendency built over time or preconceived notions about something or someone. Bias also means showing prejudice for/against something or someone and having a tendency to favour one thing or person over another.

Unconscious bias or implicit bias refers to the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously assign to another person or group of people which has an effect on how a person understands and engages with that particular person or group. They are cognitive biases that exist in an individual’s subconscious.

Unconscious biases are formed outside a person’s own conscious awareness, and it’s important to be aware of them. These biases are not restricted only to the more talked about biases such as gender or race (in the Indian context, also, caste), but can also exist towards disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, weight, religion, caste, and many other characteristics of an individual.

The findings of a report by Catalyst showed that companies with more representation of women in their top management teams saw better financial performance as compared to companies with low women’s representation, and had a 34% higher return to shareholders.

Such studies have found that the business benefits of greater diversity are immense – better innovative drive, creativity, recruitment and retainment efforts, and increased market share. Therefore, it is imperative that companies and business leaders act promptly to not just diversify their organisations but also act against pervasive unconscious biases.

On the surface, implicit biases may seem to be a smaller worry as compared to conscious or explicit bias. However, implicit biases are a cause for concern because they make individuals behave in small, but cumulatively significant, discriminatory ways. They can be either positive or negative and are activated without a person’s awareness or intentional control.

Unfortunately, these biases often end up becoming a significant contributor to the lack of diversity at workplaces. If they are not recognized and dealt with effectively, implicit biases can have negative consequences for both individuals as well as organisations. This article will discuss some of the major types of unconscious biases that are observed in workplaces.

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is the unconscious bias to get along with, and like people who are similar to ourselves. It leads to favouring people who we perceive are like us. People are likely to gravitate towards other people who are similar to them in appearance, have similar backgrounds, have similar beliefs as it is easy to socialize and spend time with and around such people.

Affinity bias leads to people favouring those who they feel they have a connection – or affinity towards. This type of bias also leads to people’s micro-affirmations playing out.

For example, during an interview, if you feel an affinity towards the interviewee, you are more likely to smile more and attempt to put them at ease then you would for a person whom you feel no affinity or connection to. Affinity bias essentially leads to people having more favourable opinions about other people who are like them.

Unfortunately, affinity bias is extremely common and manifests itself significantly in the hiring process. People are simply more likely to lean towards people like themselves, people who remind them of someone they know or people who remind them of their own younger selves – essentially people who ‘look, act and operate’ like them.

It is important to note that, while similar qualities shouldn’t act as automatic disqualifiers, they shouldn’t function as the deciding factor either.

According to McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity report, companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more profitable, and here is where it becomes crucial to acknowledge affinity bias, as the lack of diversity is ultimately going to hamper a company’s growth.

Representational image.

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias is an individual’s inclination to behave similarly or akin to the people around them, irrespective of their own beliefs and instead of exercising one’s independent judgement and acting accordingly.

It refers to the human tendency to take cues for appropriate behaviour from the actions of others rather than using personal judgement.

Conformity bias is a serious issue as it can lead to serious lapses and have severe repercussions for a company. This type of bias is common because we seek acceptance and validation from other people. Further, people want to hold views and opinions that are considered to be agreeable within their community.

To build an inclusive work culture, it is important that people don’t feel the need or pressure to conform to the majority’s opinion and can freely express their reservations or differing or even unpopular views. It can lead to a reduction in creativity and innovation, restrict opinions and decrease healthy competition. It can make people believe that ‘fitting in’ is the best option to survive at a workplace.

An example of conformity bias would be a member of the interview panel or hiring team deciding to go with a particular candidate because the rest of the panel/ team expressed a favourable opinion about the candidate.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the inclination to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with an individual’s existing beliefs. It is essentially our tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas.

Confirmation bias explains how two persons with opposing ideologies and beliefs can look at the same evidence and yet feel validated by it.

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), confirmation bias is “the tendency to gather evidence that confirms preexisting expectations, typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence”. Thus, confirmation bias is a significant cognitive bias that has an impact on people in the workplace as well, especially in aspects of decision making.

During decision making, confirmation bias can make the person making the decision have a selective observation which can lead to overlooking or rejecting information that doesn’t fit in with their views.

When after reviewing a candidate’s CV, the candidate is called for an interview and the interviewer, having formed an initial opinion of the candidate based on the CV consequently asks questions and steers the conversation so as to confirm their initial opinion of the candidate is an example of how confirmation bias is reflected in workplaces.

Confirmation bias clouds our judgement and leads us to ignore contradicting information that doesn’t fit within our views and beliefs. Another example of confirmation bias is employers tending to see women as less confident than their male counterparts thus, leading to women being passed over for positions and promotions.

Representational image.

Attribution Bias

Attribution bias can be described as the tendency to have different reasoning for one’s own behaviour versus that of others. This form of bias is related to our assessment of behaviour. For instance, when something good or favourable occurs, we are prone to attribute it to ourselves and our efforts as compared to when something negative or bad takes place, we are likely to attribute it to other people or external factors.

However, when it comes to assessing other people, we are often likely to think that the opposite is true, that the achievements of other people are a result of luck or chance and their failures as a result of their personality, behaviour or lack of hard work. These attributions are judgements and assumptions, which may not always be true or accurate and thus, may not reflect reality.

This form of bias is also sometimes referred to as self-serving bias. Many examples of attribution bias can be seen in workplaces. For example, people typically attribute their personal characteristics such as their great resume to the reasons that they were hired but blame external factors for their termination such as a short-sighted HR or incompetence in the organisation.

Halo/Horns Bias

The halo/horns bias or halo/horns effect is a type of cognitive bias where individuals permit a single trait, action, event or behaviour, either good (halo) or bad (horns), to overshadow all others that follow.

Essentially, the halo/ horn effect is when our first impression of someone leads us to have a biased positive or negative opinion of their work or company. This form of bias leads to the tendency of putting someone on a pedestal or thinking more highly of them after learning something favourable or impressive about them, or conversely, perceiving someone negatively after learning something unfavourable about them.

Similar to affinity and confirmation bias, the halo/horns bias can make us ignore vital information by focusing excessively on only one feature either good or bad. It narrows our perspective which clouds one’s judgement. At the workplace, the halo/horns bias can arise in various circumstances such as recruitment, allotting tasks, underperformance and overworking to name a few.

An example of the halo bias during recruitment would be seeing that a candidate has attended a prestigious college or institution and subsequently due to the halo bias tending to view everything else about that person in light of that singular achievement.

An example of the horns bias at the workplace would be being unimpressed by a colleague or junior’s dressing sense and assuming that they are lazy or unprofessional, although competence is unrelated to a person’s attire.

Important To Address And Fix Biases

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing inequities and inequality. Thus, achieving greater diversity and inclusion has never been more crucial for companies and organisations. To ensure the realisation of these objectives, it is imperative to take cognizance of unconscious biases and the impact that they have in workplaces.

Unconscious biases can act as hidden barriers to achieving truly inclusive and diverse workplaces by having far-reaching impacts on recruitment, mentoring and promotions.

This can subsequently hamper leadership and higher-level management opportunities for women, individuals identifying as LGBTQIA+, persons with disabilities and persons belonging to any marginalized group. It can have substantial negative consequences such as bullying, harassment, discrimination, people feeling excluded, being less productive and unengaged.

To develop and maintain an inclusive workforce, it is important for organisations and companies to address unconscious bias. Only by developing genuine awareness of how unconscious bias works, can companies promote a genuinely diverse workplace.

About the author: Avanti Deshpande is a penultimate year law student at ILS Law College, Pune. Her main interest areas are human rights, gender laws and international law.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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