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Unconscious bias training: an eye-opening afternoon

Sue Paterson - RCVS President 2023-24

Unconscious bias is something I had heard about and was aware of but to be honest knew very little about, until I attended the RCVS Council workshop after our regular Council meeting the other day [3 September 2020].

Susan PatersonIf I am honest, my initial thoughts were that it was a subject I needed to know more about, but a workshop, especially one run virtually because of the confines of Covid-19, was likely to be a little dry and perhaps one of those where (we have all done it) you turn off the camera and check your emails.

I could not have been more wrong. What a fantastic three hours, and something I would thoroughly recommend to anyone. It was fast-paced, interactive and a really challenging session skilfully led by our trainer Jasmine Gartner.

Our session started with some examples of how we all suffer from unconscious bias. Jasmine asked us to produce a mental picture of a builder having lunch when a nurse cycles past on a bike, the builder shouts after the nurse, "Nice legs!".

As we visualise the scene, our unconscious bias cuts in to help us interpret what is going on, as well as the actions and behaviour of others. To most, the builder was white, of course male and probably had a large flask of stewed tea and a cheese and pickle sandwich, with a copy of a tabloid newspaper next to him. The nurse was also white, young and probably an attractive brunette. This is unconscious bias.

Once you know you are doing it, you can slow down your automatic bias and look at the situation in a different way. Why couldn’t that builder be black and female, why couldn’t she have a flask of peppermint tea, and falafel and humus in her packed lunch, together with a copy of the Financial Times? Also, of course, the nurse may also have been black and been male.

We were taught that bias comes from a range of different sources including our upbringing, our culture and our experiences and works automatically at great speed which is what makes it so difficult to change.

Other subjects we covered included workplace bias, and particularly looked at in-groups and out-groups. In-groups we learnt are those defined by society as being dominant; out groups are sub- or non-dominant.

Once you know you are doing it, you can slow down your automatic bias and look at the situation in a different way.

Those groups are often defined along the lines of such things as age, race, disability, gender, marital status etc, but could equally be the in-group of staff that go down the pub for a drink after work and the out-group of those who don’t.

Belonging to an in-group carries benefits, whilst being a member of an out-group produces obstacles. People have an inbuilt drive to put themselves into an in-group and others into an out-group.

Jasmine used disability as an example for us. An able-bodied individual appears to be the 'norm', has more opportunities and better career progression compared to the disabled member of the out-group, who may try to hide their disability, try to 'fit in' and needs to work harder to progress.

The whole session was a real eye-opener and really made me question my whole decision-making process.

By being aware of these groups in our day-to-day lives, we should be able to build an inclusive culture by creating in-groups within society, at work and indeed within our profession as a whole by looking at ways to include the members of those out-groups.

What was really interesting for me as an evidence-based clinician is that the evidence now clearly shows that where businesses embrace members of these 'out-groups', whether those are ethnic minorities or just the fact one is female, they thrive.

The whole session was a real eye opener and really made me question my whole decision-making process. It isn’t often that I attend CPD that leads to such an extended period of reflection as this session did, it will certainly force me to stop, slow down, and consider when I make decisions in the future

Published on 21 September 2020

Tags: Councils & Committees