Pragya Agarwal: "People use unconscious bias as a get-out clause"

23 Apr 2020 By Jenny Roper

The journalist, author and speaker on why we need to recognise our implicit prejudices

Pragya Agarwal’s new book, Sway, is jam-packed with research showing how deeply ingrained implicit bias is for everybody; for example, it features a study finding that male and female scientists – both trained to be objective – were more likely to hire men, considered them more competent and paid them on average $4,000 more a year. 

She's a journalist, author, behavioural and data scientist, two-time TEDx speaker and founder of a research think tank, yet Agarwal has been at the receiving end of unconscious bias herself: she startsSway with an account of a fellow student, when she was studying for her PhD, assuming she wouldn’t be good at maths because of her gender – a key formative experience, inspiring her fascination with and studies into this topic...

Why do we all hold unconscious biases?

We evolved to survive, and people in the distant past didn’t have time to assess every individual on the basis of whether they were a threat, so they had to make these really quick decisions based on certain characteristics. Sometimes it’s helpful. In a supermarket we can’t stand and rationally assess the pros and cons of every single cereal. But in many cases it’s not very helpful. Sometimes people use the fact it’s hard-wired into our brains to say ‘we can’t do anything about it; we’re designed to be biased’. But the world is not the same today and we are not the same. 

So is there a danger that, after being told everyone holds unconscious biases, people feel justified in these?

Absolutely. People sometimes say ‘if I’m not aware of it, it’s not really my fault’. 

Does this mean a lot of unconscious basis training is actually counter productive? Can it be done effectively?

I think talking about unconscious bias has become so popular, there is a danger that it’s become a kind of trend and buzzword. And there can be a certain fatigue associated with it because it’s talked about so much. I despair when people say unconscious bias was a 2019 trend. Training has to be ongoing – not just a tick-box or half-day session. It has to be very reflective, interactive and non-judgemental, rather than a talk someone gives. And you can’t then measure someone’s unconscious bias with a test.

Is a lot of unconscious bias actually perfectly conscious though? Is there a risk of this being used as another get-out clause?

People do excuse a lot of actions this way. As long as we see unconscious bias as a get-out clause this will always be a problem. When we stop seeing it that way it doesn’t really matter whether it’s conscious, unconscious or somewhere in between. Often as soon as we reflect on it, it becomes explicit. Sometimes that’s the challenge, because people think ‘you’ve started talking about race and it’s not good; let’s brush it under the carpet so we don’t have to think about it’. 

Is getting people to recognise their biases harder when it comes to race, then?

It’s an emotive topic and being racist has such sinister connotations – and we believe in this post-race society where everyone has the same opportunities. It causes a lot of squirms. White privilege is a very tricky concept to talk about because no one wants to think they’re privileged. So sometimes a good start with training is saying ‘we all need to reflect on what makes us privileged, no matter who we are’. I often give a lot of examples about how bias has affected people, not just in the workplace but in healthcare diagnoses, for example. Then people start understanding. You can see them thinking ‘oh yes, sometimes I do that’.

Is there a business case for addressing unconscious bias and for wider D&I efforts? Or is this just the right thing to do?

I can’t say it’s going to result in higher profits. We should do it because unless we have diverse voices we’re living in an echo chamber and not opening our minds to different opportunities. We get stuck in a certain way of working and won’t be able to advance. 

What practical steps can HR take to begin tackling unconscious bias?

I recommend anonymous surveys asking what people’s primary concerns are about how they’re treated in the workplace. Do they feel they fit in? Do they face microaggressions? Do they have the same opportunities for growth and development? Then think about: what are the goals you want to achieve by tackling unconscious bias? Once those are clear you can think of a strategy. If you don’t know what your goals are you won’t know whether you’ve achieved them or not.

What are the unconscious bias implications of coronavirus?

There is a danger that when we’re in crisis we go into survival mode – our in and out group biases are heightened. We need someone to blame; Trump calls it the ‘Chinese virus’, for example. Also, as we’re not going out and seeing as many people, we’ll get even more stuck in our echo chambers than usual. 

My optimistic view is people will become more aware of the inequalities in society and start questioning them more. And as people work from home, our communication might become kinder and more empathetic. People are seeing other people’s families and the struggles they might be going through. [Negative, non-inclusive] workplace cultures might become less obvious. It could be a bit of a leveller, so patterns of behaviour might be broken. It’s just how we translate that back into the workplace rather than falling into the same patterns. 

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