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21 May 2009

On bias and the value of difference

Is it possible for an Asian man to be prejudiced against Asian people?  For a woman to show bias against other women?  Well, according to Professor Binna Kandola, it is.  And, in his new book, “The Value of Difference”, which he wrote as a way of re-energising the diversity debate and providing some practical solutions and actions, he explains not only how we can learn to recognise and acknowledge that we are all, in different ways, guilty of bias but also how we can work to overcome it.

Earlier this week, I attended the PwC UK hosted launch of the book (sub-titled: “eliminating bias in organisations”) – and I managed to score not one but TWO signed copies – more on that later.

(Regular readers will know how much I appreciate a free book – and I love two free books quite possibly more than life itself, so it was a highly successful evening from my point of view.  I am definitely biased in favour of events which give away books).

The occasion began with a description of PwC UK’s work to date in the area of bias awareness, some of which I’ve previously written about and showcased elsewhere on the website. This approach begins by acknowledging that practical changes don’t always make as large an impact or change the culture of an organisation in the way that we imagine they would or should – and this is true for society as a whole,  as evidenced by the continuing need for rafts of anti-discrimination legislation in countries around the world.  We always hope, rely on and assume that each new generation coming through will evoke change – but yet, in spite of ourselves, people are the issue, not the solution. 

And, if we acknowledge that positive change will not just happen on its own, then designing and running some positive “bias awareness” training, as PwC UK do, is one approach to taking charge of a situation and creating progress via people.

Binna told the audience that, in spite of ourselves, when we meet people for the first time, we register their colour - followed by other visual “clues” about them, such as their age, gender, hair colour, disability status and so on.  And these behaviours and “registrations” may be unconscious, and even benign, but are not random; they happen to us all because of our backgrounds and influences.  Remember my blog post from my trip to India last year?  In that article, I wrote how I felt very self-conscious being a tall, white woman in “western” dress whilst in Delhi.  I don’t believe that I was showing negative bias but I know that I was very aware of my status and height – but then again, according to Prof. Kandola, nobody ever believes that they personally are displaying bias…

“The Value of Difference” has been endorsed by Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who managed to extricate himself from the extremely high profile (in the UK, at least) discussions currently happening in our political world with regard to MPs’ expenses in order to join us  (declaring that “It’s frankly mayhem out there!”) and describe why he was supporting what he described as “an important book, and one which people may find controversial.”

He continued by noting that “there is a sense that we, as a country are changing…” and shared a story in which he recollected a recent event at which he was the only person of colour amongst a crowd of 200 people.  He was not uncomfortable (although he was obviously aware) in this environment, but it prompted him to observe that:

“… many more of us are much more comfortable with differences than ever before – and yet we rarely see people from minorities in positions of influence and power.  And we still haven’t managed to crack the cultural, social and behavioural issues which impede progress.”

Paraphrasing Rahm Emanuel’s edict of “never letting a good crisis go to waste”, he asked the audience to consider how we can create social and organisational benefits from “this enforced shake out” and suggested that we now need a new framework for cultural change: how do we take advantage of all of the talent – and not just work with the people who resemble ourselves?  Bias awareness is one of the keys to creating this new framework, and Binna’s book:

“… brings science into diversity and equality, providing us with a new tool to help us deal with tackling bias.”

Trevor handed over to PwC UK Advisory Partner Paul Cleal, who talked a little about his own dual-heritage background and shared the story of being one of the first Black partners in the UK firm and how he has been working with the leadership team to ensure that they really do understand the nature of bias.  Returning to Trevor’s description of the book as “controversial”, Paul suggested that the most contentious idea comes from the statement that bias “… isn’t just about the bad guys – it’s about you and me.” 

And Binna confirmed this, adding that he didn’t:

“… blame people for being biased; but I do blame them for not taking action.”

Paul wrapped up the event by suggesting that one of the most influential mechanisms of change within an organisation can come about when you combine the power of the story with the strength of facts and data. He described PwC UK as being “by no means the finished article – but we’re on the way there”, explaining how using the data extracted from our HR systems to show the breakdown of who from the talent pool has what jobs, coupled with stories from some of those people, had been proven to be a powerful combination when helping people in leadership roles understand not only what needs to change but also why.

I’m very much looking forward to getting stuck into what Trevor Phillips has described as “essential reading” and I have a copy of “The Value of Difference – Eliminating Bias in Organisations”,  signed by Binna Kandola and dedicated to “A Gender Agenda blog reader!” to give away.  Normal blog rules apply: please write me an article, of c. 500-600 words, describing how bias has impacted your life or career in some way, and what actions you took to overcome it.  Feel free to change names and identifying details in order to respect your privacy, but do share your story, which we will publish in a future edition of the Gender Agenda.  I look forward to receiving your entries – the closing date for receipt of them is in four weeks’ time, on Friday 19th June.  Thank you.

If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, it’s available via the usual on-line book retailers or from the Pearn Kandola website.

Until next time … oh and, by the way: doesn’t our new web tile, which celebrates our DiversityInc win, look rather splendid adjacent to the Opportunity Now tile?  What a month!



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