A true story about unconscious bias in the workplace. Stereotyping on all manner of human characteristics is everywhere - and limits us all.

Bias by the box-load

By Charlotte Butler, Managing Director, Altogether Different

True story

A couple of years ago I heard a tale of bias so stark, so unbelievable, it almost made me spit my tea across the room with laughter.

The story goes like this. The year was 2016, an accountancy firm sent their client, a team at a bank, a thank you present at the end of the year. The men received blue boxes, the women, pink. Each pink box revealed a bottle of wine and those women who drank wine were delighted. But wait! What had been sent to each of the men? That’s right – three bottles of wine! The gender pay gap played out in seasonal gift booze.

A clerical error was suspected, but further investigation revealed that no, this was the intended gift. The thinking? ‘Men drink more than women’. An awkward afternoon in the bank ensued.

A comedic example, but less overt versions of this kind of stereotyping happen all the time in the workplace. In this case gender is being reduced, but seemingly innocuous, even ‘reasoned’ stereotyping on all manner of human characteristics is everywhere – and limits us all.

Unconscious bias

It’s often born of our unconscious bias, our hard-wired evolutionary need to seek safety in what reminds us of ourselves, whilst roughly categorising ‘difference’. From comments about ‘entitled’ millennials, to apparently universally shared national characteristics. Assumptions about what people eat, read, watch, do and enjoy because of their innate characteristics are never far from the conversation. And in this world of ever-increasing AI, data-driven “you might also like” segmentation arguably begets even more ‘pink box set blue box set’ scenarios.

Enter the human

For those of you who drink alcohol, some of you may have given up one, or even three bottles of wine over dry January. But have you ever tried giving up stereotyping? It’s very hard. It’s Iron Man hard. Oh whoops, I’ve done it again! Harder still is to point out when friends and colleagues use stereotypes, or perhaps gendered language when communicating, even in seemingly small ways.

This isn’t just about shelving the ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ chat, it’s about noticing when we ourselves use stereotype-based assumptions when we’re talking about people, particularly in the workplace. At interviews, during team formation, when considering audiences for our communication – stereotypes trip up our intent and make us miss out.

At some time or other we have all felt reduced to a stereotype, it’s rough, but oddly, it unites us all. The key is to build empathy with this feeling, embrace intersectionality, and leave the boxes for the wine.

Altogether Different specialises in building empathy with workplace inclusion, leading to motivated teams driving meaningful inclusive action.

Upcoming event on inclusion & the role of communication

If you like what you’ve just read and want to learn more, Charlotte is running a truly transformative one day workshop: ‘Inclusion & the role of communication’, relevant to all communicators and HR professionals who need to engage with internal audiences. Click on this link to book your ticket.

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