What unconscious racial bias in the workplace looks like in 2021 and what we can do about it

Listen up. If you’re a decent-sized organisation that prides itself on building a diverse and inclusive culture, and interacts with a similarly diverse contractor pool, you may need to reflect on not only your internal interactions but your external ones as well. Being an organisation that people take pleasure in doing business with is something to aspire to because this reputation helps you build a robust, mutually beneficial, and reliable supply chain. So let’s begin…

If you’ve ever spent any time as part of a minority group in any society, chances are you’ll already know what unconscious bias is, and likely even experienced it yourself. I’m applying an Asian-Australian lens to this article to reflect my own cultural background.

The concept of unconscious bias, or implicit bias in the workplace is not new. SBS wrote a fantastic piece back in 2017 on reducing unconscious bias, noting that the brain’s amygdala is the main controller of our sub-conscious actions and that we tend to feel less empathy for those who are different to ourselves.

I first encountered unconscious bias training in the workplace in 2015 and it made me stop and think – was it possible that people I encountered in my professional life had a subconscious tendency to prefer working with those who they felt were most like themselves? What unconscious biases did I have?

What is the Bamboo ceiling

An article by the ABC that interviewed several Asian Australians identifies cultural biases, stereotypes, and systemic barriers as factors preventing many of them from leveling-up in their professional fields. Understanding workplace behaviors and viewing cultural differences as an asset is therefore crucial in order to break the bamboo ceiling.

To be fair, at that point in my career I had done fairly well for myself – after relocating from Australia to work for Thames Water in the UK in 2006, I had worked hard to attain Chartered Engineer status there, and had been nominated by my organisation for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Young Engineer of the Year Award. Within 4 years of arriving in the UK as a young female in a male-dominated sector, I was managing my own projects and leading multi-disciplinary teams, working closely with different parts of the business on other strategic initiatives. When I joined Atkins, a consultancy which at the time had 17,000 employees globally, I was deemed a good choice to be given line management responsibilities and to be one of the first cohorts to attend the Women in Leadership course being offered.

We can safely say that as a foreign, female engineer and emerging leader, I was well-supported and would not be held back by some of the issues we discuss today.

And yet in 2021, in modern-day Australia, I hear that niggling thought in the back of my mind during the numerous interactions I’ve had with a particular client: Is this implicit racism? Is this person having a bad day? Is there an excuse for this attitude and behaviour that tends to only emerge behind closed doors when we are alone? Or… could it possibly be… because I’m different?

We have made so much progress. But how much progress have we made in reality? The UK government scrapped unconscious bias training for civil servants, claiming that it hasn’t changed attitudes – a move described as short-sighted by Forbes amongst others.

The employment rate for ethnic minority workers compared to white workers versus the cultural diversity in modern Australian society also tells a story. The Human Rights Commission pinpointed unconscious racial bias as the reason that only 1.9% of Asian Australians attain executive management positions compared to the 9.6% of the community who identified with having an Asian cultural background. Asian Australians consistently achieve academic success and still miss out on leadership opportunities despite often coming from disadvantaged schools when compared to white peers.

Walk through the offices of any water utility organisation in Australia and you’ll see ethnic and gender diversity, yet when you look at their leadership teams, their Boards, and their senior managers, this diversity is not reflected.

We know enough to understand that this is not deliberate – long term cultural change takes time, but leaderships would do well to recognise that organisational culture starts from above, and that being a company that walks the walk will lead to greater success – which also means taking intersectionality into account.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Long term cultural change takes time, but leaderships would do well to recognise that organisational culture starts from above, and that being a company that walks the walk will lead to greater success.

Intersectionality – racism, sexism, and other isms.

The Diversity Council of Australia defines intersectionality as “the way that multiple aspects of diversity (e.g., our age, care-giving responsibilities, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity) come together or ‘intersect’ to form part of our identity – and therefore our experience of inclusion at work”. It is increasingly recognised that it is important to consider intersectionality to dismantle systems and structures that result in inequality.

There’s been so much attention paid to levelling the playing field for women in the workplace in the past few decades – Gloria Steinem challenged the idea of gender-specific roles, whilst more recently Sheryl Sandberg inspired women to be unapologetic in seeking career advancement.

Yet when we look at the intersection of gender and race in the corporate pipeline, we can see that not only do men outnumber women at entry level, but this marginal difference (52% men to 48% women) becomes strikingly more apparent amongst C-Suite executes (77% male to 23% female). Introduce race into the equation and we can see that at entry level, there are half as many men and half as many women of colour compared to white men and white women, and you can forget about equal representation at C-Suite level, with only 9% men of colour and 4% women of colour.

The DCA undertook a study of culturally diverse LGBTQ talent and reported on the numerous often intersecting issues experienced in the workplace by the respondents.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Why should businesses care?

“Because it’s the right thing to do” would be too easy, wouldn’t it? So here are 5 reasons to consider:

  1. Performance culture

A culturally diverse workplace is often a high-performing and profitable workplace. And why not? When employees feel respectfully empowered, morale improves and creating an environment that nurtures a more innovative, performance-driven, and productive human capital, and resulting in improved retention of talent.

The DCA’s Inclusion@Work Index, surveyed over 3,000 working Australians and showed that inclusive organisations have improved performance and innovation, better customer service, more satisfied and secure staff, and less harassment and discrimination. 

  1. Mental health of employees.

Mental health issues are estimated to cost the Australian economy up to $60 billion dollars per year in healthcare and lost productivity so there is a strong economic case for early prevention. We know that unconscious bias is a contributor to anxiety and stress in the workforce, so addressing these issues is key to improving employee mental health outcomes. Human Resource organisation APM identifies the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace to employees and employers as:

For Employees:

  • Greater sense of safety and belonging
  • Stronger resilience and ability to adapt to change
  • More open to discuss and manage mental health issues
  • Improved conflict resolution and problem-solving skills
  • Increased empathy and understanding of customer needs

For Employers:

  1. Increasingly diverse client and customer base.

The Diversity council of Australia conducted research on our ability to interact effectively in Asian countries and cultures, and with people from Asian cultural backgrounds, to achieve work goals (“Asia Capability”) and found that a third of Australia’s workforce has very little or no overall Asia Capability. This is despite the fact that the fastest growing immigrant group in Australia are Asian-born.

If we are to claim a place amongst our geographical neighbours and share a playground with the Asian economic powerhouses, we must embrace cultural diversity in the workplace and not be afraid of it.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
  1. Your employees are a reflection of your brand

Businesses spend a lot of time and effort in ensuring that employees reflect the culture and values of an organisation. If you are failing to call-out seemingly minor instances of racial bias, you may be doing your brand a disservice. You can be sure that if you’ve noticed, your clients, contractors, and regulators will notice too.

  1. Racism is bad for business

If the above reasons weren’t enough for you, according to research by Deakin University, funded by Vic Health and the AHRC, the cost of racism in the workplace is costing the Australian economy up to $45bn/annum. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate within an individual workplace what impact the unconscious behaviour of your staff is in monetary terms, but considering what is at stake – loss of productivity, greater turn-over and negative brand association, can you really afford to not pay attention to discrimination in the workplace? The answer should be a resounding No.

What can businesses do?

If we know we can’t eliminate unconscious bias, perhaps as businesses, we should instead be planning for it.

Tamanna, Bank employee

We all want to do the morally and ethically commendable thing, but put simply and more brutally, racism is bad for business. The first step to tackling it is to understand how unconscious bias can negatively affects your team.

And once we know better, we need to do better.

Here are 8 ways to start.

  1. Recognise racial bias and have the conversation

Only by recognising that it exists and its impact on people and businesses can we address it. Moving beyond paying lip service.

Examples of racial bias:

There are many examples of racial bias, with much evidence-based research into the intersection between race and other factors. I’ve only just touched on a few of these below.

Affinity bias – this occurs when people feel a stronger connection to those who have had similar life experiences to you. Without realising, you are creating an “in group” and an “out group”. A particularly acute example I experienced on more than one occasion during the NSW lockdown was when in a friendly conversation I asked a Client how they were coping. Her response was that her part of town was not problematic, despite being the epicentre of an initial outbreak, because those living in her suburb were (and I quote) “quite hygienic … and following the rules” – the context being that the worst hit suburbs happened to be the most ethnically diverse and home to large numbers of essential workers.

In the workplace, this type of bias can lead to bad hiring decisions, good ideas being dismissed, and employees feeling undervalued. In a separate conversation with the same Client, she questioned why a particular hire was chosen from overseas, when she believed that there should be a perfectly suitable local candidate – as much as a local hire would have been easier, unfortunately in this instance they were not the best candidates, and the new recruit went on the make valuable contributions.

Of course, as with many cases of implicit discrimination, these things are easily dismissed – we generally want to assume that people are always acting appropriately – even if they are not kind, that they are at least politically correct. However, when someone is always questioning why a person of colour, who is well-respected in their field and presents well is being put forward instead of someone else of a similar standing, you can’t but help raise an eyebrow.

Micro-aggressions – During a meeting that I had recently, the Client, without apology or any attempt to correct herself once she stumbled, failed to pronounce the name of the person who had been the project lead for months, and instead of taking the time to learn it, moved on. An unpronounceable name in itself would not be unusual – unfamiliar names across any culture can be difficult to read or say out loud; but to dismiss someone’s name as too difficult, particularly given that it was a short, two-syllable phonetic name, speaks to an inherent indifference and a disrespect for cultures other than one’s own.

Confirmation bias – Another conversation in the workplace revolved around undertaking a review of similar work that had been undertaken in the international space. The Client automatically dismissed certain countries, stating that work from said countries could not be reliable. If you are currently running through countries in your mind that this could relate to, you are probably leaning in to some confirmation bias, which can result in blind spots and missed opportunities. Another example is when male lawyers are believed to want partnership more than their female counterparts and are then given more support or assistance to achieve their goals, further confirming that they “had what it takes” to begin with.

Attribution bias and attribution error – This occurs when we ascribe certain beliefs about groups of people in such a way that results in a less favourable assessments of that group, and/or a more favourable assessment of ourselves. I’ve come across one example of this throughout my career, and even been blinded by it myself as a young Client (inexperience can do that) – attribution error is applied regularly to contractors. I’ve seen it stifle opportunities for real collaborative thinking – the assumption that a contractor or someone external to your organisation wants something different to you can mean that you aren’t having honest conversations with someone who can not only ease your workload and strengthen your team, but will drive your goals when they have a clear understanding of what they are.

  1. Power dynamics

Studies on the interaction between gender, race, and workplace power have shown that greater inequality is experienced the higher the organisational level. There is an unequal power between Employers and Employees or between Clients and Contractors and not recognising this stifles collaboration and creates an environment where teamwork suffers. Instead, recognise that being in a position of power means that you may also need to make space to hear, recognise, and explore other peoples’ realities. In this way you lead the collaboration as a Client-partner, not merely as a master being attended to by a servant in a transactional relationship.

  1. Show leadership

Tamanna, who works as a manager in a leading Australian bank, believes that organisational culture is key; “If your organisation teaches leaders to leap into legal risk management instead of engaging in meaningful conversation to understand a situation when an issue raised, then no amount of training is going to improve your culture”, adding that soft skills can achieve progress where a more legalistic route may result in both parties taking more firmly entrenched positions.

“Leaders should not be afraid to review and reconsider decisions that have been made and make new ones where appropriate – it’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are brave enough to address them”. If I ever saw a call for CEO’s and senior executives to acknowledge and challenge their own inherent unconscious bias, this is it.

  1. Review your team

Does the diversity of your team reflect the diversity of your customer base? If not, why not? Benefits to business of diversity have been well studied. You can do a quick review of how diverse and inclusive your organisation is by using some of the tools such as this one from the Australian Human Rights Commission and read this for some tips on developing your own scorecard. There is also the APM’s Disability Diverse and Inclusion Checklist here if you’d like to add another dimension to your assessment.

Tamanna adds “If we know we can’t eliminate unconscious bias, perhaps as businesses, we should instead be planning for it” – this might seem revolutionary, but business plan for all sorts of real and perceived risks all the time. Not recognising racial or other biases is a business risk in itself.

  1. Internal dialogue

Check in with yourself. Are you making excuses for your behaviour or is the decision/judgement that you’re making really fair?

  1. Training

Skills4 includes key topics such as conscious inclusionmicro-aggressions and allyship to bolster its Unconscious Bias Training package to maximise the chance for real and lasting effect on the workforce. Be selective in the type of diversity and inclusion training you roll out make sure to address implicit bias.

  1. Recognise Intersectionality

Australian researchers developed an educational package called the Intersectionality Walk (IW) in order to help organisations attract and retain minorities of diverse backgrounds. In a pilot study applying the IW package, they found that participants had an improved understanding of intersectionality and over the course of the study had learned ways to bring about institutional and structural change.

The researchers state that “An individual is more than the sum of the
identifiable ‘demographic’ categories. The IW aims to demonstrate that two people sharing a common demographic or even two or three characteristics do not translate into experiencing the workplace (and indeed the world) in a similar way” – this means that managers with strong interpersonal skills are required to bring out the best in their employees.

  1. Get to know the people you work with – as fellow human beings

Lastly, get to know the people you work with. This does not really need to be said, but you’d be surprised at how many sites there are supplying “Questions to get to know your staff/co-workers”. When you get to know people, you see them as more similar to yourself, and you learn about what drives them and how they work best. This leads to better rapport, greater efficiency, and better outcomes, not to mention you’ll be known as someone that others want to work with.

It’s only then that we can begin to manage our unconscious biases and become the leaders of tomorrow.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Featured image courtesy of Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash


Happy Diwali

I haven’t had a chance to write in the recent months, in large part due to the joyful arrival of my baby daughter.

I would have liked to write a short piece on Diwali and the triumph of light over darkness – similar to the post I wrote at Eid earlier this year; but instead let me just leave you with a message of peace, love, and light.

May the coming year be a wonderful one for you and may your kindness be paid back a hundred-fold.

Water and Religion – reflections on Eid

Today marks the end of the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan, Eid-al-fitri, Aidilfitri, Idul Fitri, or other variations, depending on where you’re from. It is the year 1439 AH, marking the number of years since 622 AD – when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers journeyed from Mecca to Media.

This led me to reflect on the special role that water plays in many religious rituals – not just in the Islamic faith, but in all of the major religions and in many other faiths as well. A study of 230 countries conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2012 found that more than 8 in 10 people around the world identify with a religious group – six years ago this amounted to 5.8 billion people worldwide.

Photo by Mattia Serrani on Unsplash

The water practices associated with these religions almost always requires clean or pure water. In Islam, water is used in a number of rituals, including washing of the physical body before each of the 5 daily prayers – a symbol of cleansing of the spiritual self. In the absence of clean water, clean sand may be used.

In Shinto – the indigenous religion of Japan, deities are believed to inhabit natural objects such as trees, rocks, springs, and mountains. Places for cleansing oneself are part of shinto shrines and water bodies are believed to have purifying properties.

Hindus believe in the sacredness of water bodies and rivers. Physical cleanliness is closely linked to spiritual well being and morning cleansing with water is part of daily religious life. The Ganges River is held to be one of the most sacred rivers in the Hindu faith, and it is believed that the waters of the Ganges possess healing powers, and purifies those who bathe in its waters.

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

It makes me think of access to clean water and the impact that this lack of access has on peoples’ abilities to practice their religious beliefs in the manner that they would want. At present, 844 million people worldwide don’t have access to clean water close to home, and 31% of schools don’t have access to clean water. This doesn’t even discuss the darker realities of illnesses and deaths caused by lack of access to clean water. The holy Ganges is severely polluted, and yet millions still bathe in it in the same way that worshipers of generations past did.

Whether or not you believe in a deity, and whether or not you belong to a faith group, maybe today is also a day to think about the role that water plays in day-to-day ritual and well-being. A day to realise the value and importance of this thing we take for granted because it’s there just about whenever we need it. A day to appreciate that those who don’t have that access depend on us all – not just on governments – to ensure that there’s enough to go around both for today’s people and for future generations.


“Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one united piece, then We parted them? And We have made from water every living thing.” – Quran 21:30


“If we were to walk in the woods and a spring appeared just when we became thirsty, we would call it a miracle. And if on a second walk, if we became thirsty at just that point again, and again the spring appeared, we would remark on the
coincidence. But if that spring were there always, we would take it for granted and cease to notice it. Yet is that not more miraculous still?”
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700–1760)


“And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes” – Bible, Ezekiel 47:9

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

A couple of charities and sites you can support to help with this cause:


Systems thinking, respecting the Yarra River, and the future of water stewardship at the Water Innovation Lab Australia 2018.

OK, there’s a lot to cover here because I just got back from a transformative week with 60 other people in the Yarra Valley – home of the Yarra River, which has been the lifeblood of Melbourne and surrounds since before Europeans arrived. For tens of thousands of years it was called the Birrarung, and the cultural and spiritual heartland of the Wurundjeri people. It is to their elders – past, present, and future – that I pay my respects.

So what is the Water Innovation Lab?

The Waterlution Water Innovation Lab unites “young” (in quotation marks because I don’t think of myself as young!) leaders from across the globe in one place to think holistically about emerging global trends and how established patterns of thinking can be broken. The end goal is to develop solutions that integrate the values and approaches of different disciplines and segments of society.

Over a one week period, we visited numerous sites around Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, speaking to Melbourne Water, their 3 metro water retailers, Melbourne council, and a range of inspirational resource guests from industry partners such as Clearwater, Resilient Melbourne, WSAA, ICE WaRM, and the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, just to name a few. We then withdrew to a camp site in the Yarra Junction to reflect, share knowledge, and innovate, using systems thinking tools that the Waterlution facilitators shared with us.

Melbourne’s Western Treatment Plant

Here’s a little thing I made after we visited the Western Treatment Plant – unlike any conventional wastewater treatment plant I’ve ever seen, the WTP is picturesque, tranquil, and VAST! If we had the luxury of land space we could turn all our treatment plants into places of natural beauty.

Western treatment plant

Find out more about Melbourne’s Sewage Treatment.

What is Systems Thinking?

I admit, before last week, Systems Thinking was something I’d heard of but knew almost nothing about. It is a way of tackling problems from different angles, exploring the relationships between the different “why” variables, as well as identifying influences, dynamics, motivations, processes and patterns.

The Systems Thinker site highlights that many of the solutions or interventions we design (and as engineers and planners, solving problems and delivering solutions is what we do), often address symptoms of a problem and not the underlying cause. This is more likely to result in the solution having unintended consequences.

This was one of the graphics used to highlight the differences between linear and systems thinking:

Tools of a system thinker

So collectively we identified a range of complex problems that we were passionate about and wanted to spend the next few days working on (I’ve written briefly about complex or “wicked” problems here). We defined complexity based on how much agreement and how much certainty currently surrounds the issue.

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My team chose to explore issues relating to the water-energy-food nexus – a topic I’m interested in, as you may already know.

Then using a systems thinking approach, we broke off into teams and what came out was, in a nutshell, this:

Waste transfer market

I’ll go through the systems thinking behind this, and explain the concept further in another post. Although we got a lot of positive feedback from the industry partners and resource guests, a more deserving team ended up winning the seed funding and mentorship prizes.

Some insights from WILAustralia 2018:

Waterlution’s founder, Karen Kun, posits that water could be the catalyst for decreasing global inequality. Until now I had always thought of water as being the cause of global inequality and system stress – we use the terms “water wars“, “water conflict“, and “water scarcity” to link water to emerging social and political trends. Waterlution, for all the language cliches used on the website, genuinely lives and breathes their guiding metaphor of building connections through water. Through their lens, I realise that water can be the catalyst, if we each act as instruments of positive change.

Some of my key insights from the week were:

1. We all have some kind of connection to water in our day-to-day lives

Each person’s narrative may be different but without even realising it, we have more in common with strangers than we thought. What is your water story?

2. It’s hard to properly engage with aboriginal and vulnerable communities if we don’t build genuine and lasting relationships.

“Engagement” at a project level relies on trust, dialogue on an equal footing, and shared visions – these things don’t happen overnight. Build authentic relationships within the communities you serve.

3. Systems thinking

In order to solve the increasingly complex problems we face (climate change, resource security, inequality, poverty, etc), we need to break down traditional ways of thinking and approaching problems. Successful system thinkers are also able to work collaboratively across disciplines, sectors and other divides.

4. Water companies can play a significant role in creating liveable cities if they are given the opportunity to do so.

When council, water authorities, community, business and industry come together to identify patterns and the underlying structures surrounding some of our complex problems, they can design interventions that are more than just band-aid solutions. Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy is a good example of an initiative that benefits the whole community.

5. People with diametrically opposing ideas, and different values can still come together to create clever solutions.

If we’re willing to challenge our own biases and boundaries we stand a far better chance of working together successfully than if we view the world only through the lenses that we are accustomed to.

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On our last full day, we shared one insight each with one another, and there are so many more to capture that I don’t think I’ve done this section justice.

What comes after this week of water-based systems thinking?

My group hopes to pitch our idea to others in the water industry to see whether or not the concept has enough substance to be something we can pursue. We will need to explore the barriers and implementation a bit further, and seek out the support that we have identified that we will need to build a basic prototype.

And who were the innovative thinkers on my own team?

and myself.

I see a future where people working in the water sector no longer see solutions in terms of things we can build or repair. We will think about communities. We will think about blue and green infrastructure. We will think about our first nation peoples and vulnerable groups in society. We will be forward thinkers with values rooted in our past and present. We will be compassionate and collaborative leaders.

For me, I see a lot of exciting posts in the pipeline about some of the amazing work that the people I met last week are involved in – from the International Indigenous Youth Council, to some of the other interesting innovations and ideas that members of this group are involved in. As always, watch this space!

Want to see what the future water stewards will look like?

Here are some of them – what makes them remarkable is that they care not only about our water, our future and our communities, they also care about each other and work life balance!

WILAustralia2018 - nexusjournalist

A question that resonated in my mind the Monday after I got home was one that someone put to the group one evening: What will YOU do differently come Monday? Memories fade, and returning to our everyday lives will bring us back to old habits and lifestyles; but hopefully our “Monday moments” will last a long while to come.

More on Water Innovation Lab 2018

To read more about the experiences of the inaugural Water Innovation Lab Australia cohort, check out the following blogs:

  • Emma Milburn – Marketing Manager, Iota Services at South East Water

Who were our amazing facilitators?

I can’t end this without a shout-out to Seanna Davidson, Dona Geagea, and Katia Bratieres, who made this space possible and who looked after all of us for the week; as well as the other fabulous resource guests – you can have a peek at the list here.