It has been a week since Gillette released their new ‘The Best Men Can Be’ advert and the world of social media turned upside down. From ‘well done’ to decrying the advertisement as being biased against men, the comments and opinions kept flooding in. So — is Gillette’s ad biased against men, or highlighting needed social change? Perhaps both, but here is a third theory: it was our unconscious bias that made us feel one way or another.
The human brain is hard-wired to make hasty decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences. Consider this: we are exposed to as many as 11 million pieces of information at any one time, but our brain can only functionally deal with about 40. To filter out all the remaining pieces of information, our brain develops a perceptual lens that only lets in certain things. On one hand, this prevents information overload, but at the same time, we are not subjective on our interpretation of what is in front of us.
Unconscious behaviour is not just individual; it influences organisational culture as well. Unconscious organisational patterns exert an enormous influence over an organisation’s decisions, choices, and behaviours. These deep-seated company characteristics are often the reason that despite conscious efforts, organisations are failing to move the needle on inclusion and diversity. Even when leaders declare a commitment to fairness in their organisations, unconscious bias causes them to evaluate equal performers differently, as Emilio Castilla, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Benard, of Indiana University, have demonstrated in their research on the “paradox of meritocracy.”[i]
So… Is diversity training the best an organisation can get?
Not really. According to the renowned behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman, it is very hard to eliminate our individual biases. Hundreds of studies have examined the relevance of interventions for reducing bias.[ii] It turns out that the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance, with many participants actually reporting more animosity towards other groups afterward.
What is the way forward? Organisations should consider the approach known as choice architecture. This involves deliberately structuring how the information is presented: You do not take away the individual’s right to decide or tell them what they should do. You just make it easier for them to reach more rational decisions. For example, orchestras deployed this technique by using blind auditions in the 1970s.[iii] Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University and Claudia Golden of Harvard University have illustrated that this simple change played an important role in increasing the percentage of women in orchestras from 5% to almost 40% today.[iv] Organisations cannot easily put job candidates behind a curtain, but they can do a version of this with people analytics. For example, using software that allows recruiters to strip age, gender, educational and socioeconomic background information out of résumés so they can focus exclusively on talent.
How is your organisation overcoming unconscious biases? Is people analytics currently being utilising in hiring by your organisation? I would love to hear your insights on this very important topic. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Ross, H. (2008). Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace. Cook Ross.
[i] Castilla, E. J., & Benard, S. (2010). The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(4), 543-676.
[ii]Levy Paluck, E., and Green, Donald P. (2009). Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 339-367. Retrieved from http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5186d08fe4b065e39b45b91e/t/51e3234ce4b0c8784c9e4aae/1373840204345/Paluck_Green_AnnRev_2009.pdf
[iv]Goldin, C. and Rouse, C. (2009, September). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians. Retrieved from