Unconscious bias in PR

How many of us would accept that we hold stereotypes and are therefore prejudiced to some extent? It’s an uncomfortable thought, right? But what many don’t realise is that, whether we like it or not, we all have unconscious biases that are regularly influencing our decisions and interactions.

What is unconscious bias?

The brain cannot consciously process the huge amount of information it is exposed to every minute of the day, so we have evolved to create mental shortcuts that prioritise the stimuli that needs to be consciously considered, or not.

Our ‘quick-thinking’ unconscious decisions are influenced by our experiences, upbringing, education and the media. And whilst many of these shortcuts work well most of the time, they are prone to errors and can lead to discrimination: who we warm to within a team, which images we choose in marketing content, the language we use in a job ad, who we choose for promotion and so on.

As a result of unconscious bias and group-think (‘the way we do things around here’) businesses are feeding inequality, limiting diversity and creating barriers to inclusion. There is evidence that this negatively impacts creativity, competitive advantage and market share.

Examples of unconscious bias

Last year a survey by recruitment company, The Works Search, found that by three years into their career in PR, men are paid as much as £10,000 more than women doing the same role. For senior positions, the average pay gap grows to a staggering £75,000.

Very few of us would knowingly pay a woman less than a man to do exactly the same role, but as a result of gender stereotypes and unconscious bias we continue to see these disparities.

Research also confirms that:

• ‘Adam’ is likely to get three times more job interviews than ‘Mohammed’

• A man is four times more likely to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 if he’s over six-feet-tall

• 80% of employers are influenced by regional accents in the interview process

How to manage unconscious biases

In June of this year, The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) implements new rules designed to protect against further reinforcing harmful stereotypes. In a bid to take more seriously the part the media plays in influencing society, we will no longer see the types of gender-stereotyped imagery that have been criticised in adverts by Aptamil, Protein World, ASDA and Lego. This is a positive move that will hopefully start to blur the lines between a man’s and a woman’s world.

But there are things that we can do individually, too:

  1. What are your unconscious biases? Try a free online test designed by Harvard that will help you to increase self-awareness – the first step in successfully mitigating the effects of unconscious bias. There are numerous tests which focus on how we respond to different characteristics including gender, race, weight and disability.
  2. Don’t rely on first impressions – these are usually based on stereotypes and assumptions. Slow down your thinking, particularly when making key decisions. Ask yourself: is my decision based on fact only? Are these facts measurable and can they be evidenced? Am I being fair and inclusive?
  3. Remember that your unconscious biases are more likely to occur when you are tired or under pressure. Don’t choose to filter CVs at the end of a long day; pick times of the day when you are alert to make important decisions or to double check work you’ve completed in a rush.

Written by Claudia Cooney, lead director at RightTrack Learning