INTA 2017: There's No Escaping Bias

22-05-2017

An interactive panel discussion yesterday reminded attendees that we are all biased, whether or not we realize it. Ed Conlon reports.

“Bias can be harmful—it dominates our everyday lives,” said Leticia Provedel (Souto, Correa, Cesa, Lummertz & Amaral Advogados, Brazil) in an interactive panel discussion yesterday which prompted questions about equality and progress. 

Jack Manhire (Texas A&M University School of Law, USA), had opened up the session, CSU52  Inclusive Leadership: Recognizing and Defeating Our Unconscious Biases.

In a discussion heavily focused on audience participation, Mr. Manhire said “bias” is a word that brings lots of baggage, but is something that applies to all of us. “It’s not a bad thing, just a cognitive reality.”

He explained how the brain has essentially two systems: one which is very fast but is prone to error, and the other which is slower but more thoughtful, conscious and reliable. Because the two have to live together, the result is unconscious bias. 

This is problematic because, Mr. Manhire said, diversity and inclusion equal engagement, which leads to better performance. 

He pointed out that this seems “like a terrible way for humans to be designed,” but explained that because humans process just 40 out of 11 million “bits” of information in total every second, we synthesize nearly all information subconsciously.

One implicit but notable effect of bias is the small number of women working in science, said Mr. Manhire. “It’s not because they’re not smart or can’t do it,” but because the human brain can make implicit associations which then “spill out” and amplify over time and populations into organizations.

There are many implicit biases, he added, including “similarity,” which is common and can be associated with the thought process that “those like me are better than those not like me”. He used the example of different national flags, which are “symbols of our tribes.”

Concluding the discussion, Ms. Provedel said that many different groups of people took many years to fight for equality and that diversity is positive.

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