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08 Mar 2019 / durhamlane

Why Even The Most Enlightened Must Challenge Inherent Bias

Alison Freer

by Alison Freer

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At aged 14, I dutifully attended church every Sunday with my parents, going along with the routine, never questioning. That is, until the day in the mid-1980s when, emboldened by teenage free-will, I asked the vicar if he was going to vote in favour of women priests.  I was dismayed when he said ‘no’, that he didn’t think women should be allowed to become priests. I remember thinking that in that statement, he was also saying ‘no’ to me, and why shouldn’t women become priests?!  

Decades later, I now realise that was one of the few blatantly biased encounters I have experienced in my life. Perhaps I am fortunate in that, or is it that I have chosen to rise above and move beyond explicit unfair bias?  

In these more enlightened times, we are constantly reminded by the media, social trends and research about many measures of egalitarianism. And yet, we have so much still to strive for. Just over 100 years ago, when my grandmothers were born, I would have been unable to vote. Were I to live in other countries today, I might be forbidden from working, to drive alone, or to be educated, simply because of my gender. 

And yet, despite the relative enlightenment, there is an inconvenient truth about the human condition – we are all inherently biased. Our limbic, primitive brain still drives us to move towards those who are ‘like’ us – in looks, life-story or life-style – and to move-away from those who are different. As Professor Steve Peters reminds us, our ‘chimp’ brain constantly ticks away with sub-conscious chatter such as: Can you challenge me?  Do you threaten my position with your ‘difference’ to me? We can’t avoid being biased, we are born that way.  However, we can choose to be conscious about when our own bias needs to be validated, and to challenge unfair bias in others when it surfaces. 

It gives me great heart to meet so many people, at school or early in their careers, who are determined and worldly, more self-aware of their potential for unfair bias and striving to create a society with equality of opportunity.  We all have much to learn, no matter how open minded we believe that we are. 

At durhamlane we are privileged to work with many thoughtful, capable people, as colleagues, clients and partners. In the world of sales and business, we are navigating many daily moments of truth when people interact with people who are different from each other.  

There are so many potential elements to diversity, that go way beyond the traditional binary of gender. When it comes to making decisions about whom to employ, to hire as a supplier, or to engage as a customer, challenge your unconscious bias. If the inner chatter says – “it won’t work, we’re too different”, think again. Ask yourself, ‘and why not?’  

When we challenge our assumptions, incredible things can happen. As businesses grow to serve ever more diverse customers in diverse societies, we have a duty to embrace all elements of difference. Difference is potent, difference is good, and difference is essential for long-term business success.  

“…sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.” Michelle Obama. 

Alison Freer is Director of Consulting and Learning. Contact us to explore how to maximise diversity in your approach to sales and commercial leadership. 

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