Two CAs reflect on the reality of unconscious bias and how it affects us all
Unconscious bias exists within us all. And the road to addressing it begins with acknowledging its existence, as these two CAs tell Ryan Herman
Twenty years ago, when Jim Robertson CA was Global Head of Upstream Oil and Gas Tax at Shell, he was tasked with running a workshop in Brazil for the multinational. A group of accountants from Arthur Andersen (now Accenture) were brought in to see whether Shell’s tax function could be more efficient. What followed served as an eye-opening example of unconscious bias – subconscious attitudes that affect how individuals think and feel about others.
“Arthur Andersen brought in a mix of people from London, one from the US, but mostly from their Brazil offices in São Paulo and Rio,” Robertson says. “Five wore sharp suits, but one guy was shorter, a bit overweight, wearing an open-neck shirt, sweating, and he wasn’t hygienic. At dinner, one of my female colleagues chose to sit next to that guy. She alone thought if Andersen had brought him, he must be good.
“She later said to me: ‘Watch him. He’s superb.’ He didn’t say much and wasn’t especially articulate, but his ideas were amazing. And we implemented them. We had prejudged him by what we thought somebody in his role should look like. That sort of stereotyping is at the root of a lot of unconscious bias. ‘Does he or she fit the stereotype in my mind?’”
We all have unconscious biases and, Robertson says, they often come to the surface during a job interview. As the race for talent becomes ever more competitive, rejecting someone because of assumptions relating to their appearance, accent or mannerisms is a mistake companies can’t afford to make – but all too often do.
“Your brain gets hit by 10 million bits of information a second,” says Robertson. “You consciously process about 50, and the rest is unconscious. It’s not hard to bring your biases into those particular forums.”
Taking the test
So, how do you recognise those biases and learn from them? Kathryn McBean CA was in the process of starting a new management consultancy business when Covid hit and she had to put everything on hold. But she used lockdown to undergo training, including one with Harvard’s implicit association test on race.
“It said I had a ‘moderate automatic preference’ for light-skinned over dark-skinned people. That came as a shock,” she says. The result suggested McBean had scant appreciation of the barriers somebody can face due to their skin colour. She had grown up in parts of Scotland where there was little ethnic diversity, so the results were perhaps understandable. Yet that test led to something of an epiphany.
“I was unaware of my white privilege, but I’m very conscious of it now,” she says. “I read lots of books, and have expanded my network and talked to Asian and black people. Now, I like to learn about equity and allyship, whether that relates to the colour of a person’s skin, cultural background, gender, disability, neurodivergence or any difference where there is privilege and oppression. I needed to educate myself. My advice to other people is to stay curious, but also don’t blame yourself for things that you’ve done in the past.”
When it comes to discussing unconscious bias in the corporate space, Robertson brings years of expertise to the table. In his later time at Shell, he joined a subcommittee of managers at VP level to promote equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and was responsible for global communications in that area. He also did presentations on unconscious bias and now conducts pro bono seminars for MBA students based on his EDI work at Shell. He’s a member of ICAS Council and was one of the first to sit on its EDI subcommittee.
“You want your organisation to be a good place to work,” he says. “So you need to think about any bias when you’re appraising staff, and the development opportunities you give to individual staff members. Also, think about the way you behave in meetings – it can make some people feel uncomfortable if you’re showing your unconscious bias in the way you deal with your team.
“At Shell, all the senior managers were expected to engage their teams on unconscious bias. We were given professional training; once you have been trained, you’re expected to train others. You also need to understand what your own strengths, weaknesses and biases are if you want to work on them. Be aware that you probably have some stereotypes in your mind – maybe certain characteristics around females and males, maybe for or against certain nationalities. Here in Scotland, you may think that all those for or against independence are stupid. You can’t pigeonhole everyone. Keep an open mind and remove those biases that you may have in your mind. Not everyone who disagrees with you on politics is stupid.
“It comes down to self-awareness. I love the story in which the Oracle at Delphi was asked, ‘Who is the wisest man in Athens?’ The Oracle said: ‘No one is wiser than Socrates.’ When this was put to Socrates, he said: ‘One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.’”
In business, as in philosophy, it seems that there are few minds more powerful than an open one.
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