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Discussing unconscious bias can be uncomfortable, but not confronting it can be worse

November 06, 2019

By Shai Roos

If we accept that all of us have unconscious bias, we can start to recognize our biases, address them, and make successful changes—at work and in the community

Is it possible that people who enthusiastically embrace diversity are unconsciously biased? Yes. And that unconscious bias can lead to whom you choose as friends or even result in entire groups of people left out of community decisions.

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. The biases can be either a preference or prejudice and ultimately creates barriers to inclusion, performance, engagement, attraction, retention, promotions, and innovation. It is human nature to want to group people, places, and things to make sense of things around us. Much unconscious bias is learned from media, social conditioning, experiences, and family/childhood. Once you are aware of your biases, it is possible to find ways to overcome them.

Unconscious bias is a topic I’ve been particularly interested in ever since I took the Harvard Implicit Bias test. Now before I tell you what this test revealed, I’d like to give you a little background—my husband and I immigrated to the United States 23 years ago; I am from India, my husband is from Sweden; my skin color is brown, my husband’s is white; I am a Hindu, my husband is a Lutheran Christian; and we will be celebrating our 22nd anniversary in six months with just a handful of disagreements over the years with none related to our diverse backgrounds.

To increase participation and consensus from a diverse group of people with multiple native languages, methods such as graphic recording provide a common visual language for all.

When I took the implicit bias test, I expected to see no bias. But every test I took showed I had a bias either for or against something, some group, or some concept. Since this surprising discovery, I’ve taken steps to understand and accept that I have biases too. Instead of denying or hiding from my biases, I now ask myself “what is the basis of my judgment?” or “do I have a personal experience to make me think in this way?” It also takes more communication with different groups to understand better what is unknown to me.

Though I started learning about unconscious bias for my personal growth, I realized that as a planner, understanding and learning about this topic has helped me both at work and in my work in the community.

Impact of unconscious bias at work—how it can affect individuals

Unconscious bias can lead to a lack of diversity and a lack of collaboration on teams, which can lead to limited ideas and innovation on our projects. Unconscious bias can also impact retention rates, affect evaluations, access to leadership positions, and can turn into discrimination such as gender disparity.

I was once in a management meeting with a group of mostly men. During the discussion about collaboration, I suggested bringing in younger staff to work with the management team in making certain decisions. After going back and forth on the topic, one of the leaders snapped at me and said, “Oh, so you want to be the office mom?” The subtext of this statement revealed this leader’s unconscious bias that: 1) being a mom is not an important role compared to being a manager or a leader, and 2) women are moms and not managers or leaders. Unaddressed bias can negatively impact an office environment by creating gender disparity leading to fewer women in leadership positions or leading to losing the female talent to competitors.

The first step to addressing unconscious bias is to accept that all of us have it.

I was incredibly offended when my colleague expressed this opinion. I had to understand why he was thinking this way. My first reaction was that this confirmed I’m still working in a man’s world, but then I realized that my past experiences shouldn’t impact my thoughts on this person. After this meeting, I set up a private conversation with this individual and had a very uncomfortable discussion where we were both able to speak our own truths. We both wanted to change our thoughts and behaviors; ultimately, we created a better working solution—we decided to start an officewide practice to begin each meeting with an inclusion moment to create a safe space for everyone to speak their truth. While these conversations can be painful and awkward, it always helps to see the other’s perspective and why they think or act in a certain way. Speaking your truth is incredibly important to uncovering unconscious biases.

So how can we change our behaviors? We need to begin by accepting that all of us have unconscious bias before we can start to recognize our biases. Only then can we begin addressing the bias and making a change to our behaviors successfully.

Impact of unconscious bias in work—how it can affect communities

As planners, we work with different stakeholders and groups to understand the community’s desires and ideas/vision for their future. Because it’s easy for the majority voices to stand out, we host several public-engagement events when we’re planning for community projects, with the goal of elevating other voices and empowering non-typical stakeholders. When working in diverse communities, it’s important to not only understand our biases going into the public event but also understand the biases within the group that might stop others from talking. It’s our job to ensure the audience knows it’s a safe place to speak their truth.

Recently, my team and I were tasked with creating a plan for a community with many first-generation immigrants from several different nationalities. The project sponsors and staff wanted us to conduct a public meeting by inviting all people to gather in one room but offer translation of the English language presentation and facilitation in different languages at separate tables. Having one community meeting with translations in different languages was seen as a way to be inclusive and allow everyone to participate, but it was based in the unconscious bias that immigrants cannot speak or understand English. Additionally, the idea lacked cultural empathy and understanding that in some cultures, it is embarrassing to admit a lack of fluent English language skills. And it did not consider that regardless of their background, some people are not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. By acknowledging the unconscious bias, we decided to conduct:

  1. multiple meetings in native languages of the residents and offer English translation if and only as needed; and
  2. charrette style meetings where the translators spoke individually with people in their native language during the break to create a rapport, which in turn helped the residents who were not very comfortable with English discreetly ask for assistance from our team members to express their thoughts in the small group settings.

This community meeting showcased tactical urbanism as a tool to show how space can be used to develop a consensus using low cost temporary means. In this meeting, our team activated the space by bringing in a food truck, setting up tables and seating, creating temporary landscape, and showcasing how unused parking lots can be transformed.

To increase participation and consensus from a diverse group of people with multiple native languages we used innovative methods such as:

  1. graphic recording to provide a common visual language for all; and
  2. tactical urbanism to develop consensus for a recommendation to activate parking lots by using 10 parking spaces to set out artificial turf, seating, temporary lighting, food truck, outdoor games, movie for the children, music, ensuring inclusion of parents with young children into the engagement process.

By implementing these changes on how we engaged with the public, we were able to create a successful plan that truly incorporated all the voices in that community.

Again, it’s important to begin the process by accepting that all of us have unconscious bias. Only then can we begin addressing the bias and making a change to our behaviors successfully.

How to start changing behaviors

Research shows that the first step in learning about unconscious bias is to be accepting that everyone has them. Unconscious biases must be pointed out without shame or guilt.

Starting a meeting with an inclusion moment is just one of the things my team does to encourage open conversations around unconscious bias. As a company, there is also an unconscious bias training, and we have various employee resource groups such as Women@Stantec, Pride@Stantec, Indigenous Connexions, Latinos@Stantec, IWD@Stantec, Veterans@Stantec, and Cultural Awareness & Inclusion.

Self-awareness and communication are key to start evolving our biases and changing the conversation around unconscious bias. We can all be champions of inclusion and diversity.

  • Shai Roos

    Shai is a municipal planner with two decades of experience helping cities create and implement comprehensive plans and development regulations.

    Contact Shai
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