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