Loading the dice

Picture a surgeon and a nurse standing side by side. Is the surgeon male and the nurse female?

If so, you're probably in the majority. And you'd even be right most of the time, as men make up 91 percent of consultant surgeons and women 96 percent of all nurses in England. However, if acted upon, such stereotypes can be a problem, particularly when making recruitment decisions.

When it comes to making decisions, the human brain is far more powerful than any computer in existence. Nonetheless, it has major limitations. We are all subject to unconscious bias—glitches in our thinking that lead to decisions and conclusions that are flawed. This leads to our minds accepting stereotypes as infallible truths.

Why do we have unconscious biases?

We simply cannot process the abundant information available to us about each individual person and situation we encounter. As a result, our minds suppress much of that information and instead follow in-built rules to make inferences about people and situations, allowing us to make swift judgements. However, this can also prevent us from fully understanding a situation.

Why should we be aware of unconscious bias?

Many of us, however unwittingly, favour certain types of people based on our own upbringing, experience and values. For example, you may prefer fellow graduates of the university you attended. This may be because we are more comfortable with people and situations we find familiar. If these preferences are allowed to influence your decisions at work, unconscious bias can affect hiring, work allocations, performance evaluations, promotions and even dismissals. This can happen even though you are not making a deliberate decision to discriminate.

For these reasons, unconscious bias may be a driver of the lack of diversity and representativeness in the profession. This was highlighted as a priority risk in the Risk Outlook 2014/15.

Managing your biases

It is human nature to be biased in some way—remember the surgeon and the nurse? However, not everyone is able to recognise their biases. Consequently, they make judgements based on the prejudices they unconsciously hold.

One way in which you can detect the effect of any unconscious bias in your workforce is by evaluating the data you've gathered about your firm's diversity. Our annual diversity survey is intended to help firms understand their workforce and use this knowledge to shape their approach to equality and diversity. We also use this data to build a picture of diversity across the solicitors' profession.

So how can we deal with unconscious bias in the workplace? In recruitment, for example, automated screening tools are increasingly used to eliminate unconscious bias.

Other measures firms can take include having a well-defined job specification that recruiters can assess candidates against, and a formal step by step process that involves a number of different people.

Firms can also educate those with responsibility for recruitment on how best to understand a candidate's skills and capabilities. This may involve training on how to recognise and interpret the different behaviours male and female candidates may display.

These measures will help ensure that the role is offered to the most deserving candidate, based on their individual merit alone. The Law Society's business case for diversity and inclusion in law firms sets out the benefits to firms from removing bias.

Measuring progress

We cannot know whether something is improving if we do not measure it.

Unconscious bias is difficult to measure, but we can track our progress in this area indirectly by measuring diversity. We will soon be releasing an online equality and diversity benchmarking tool to allow firms to compare their own diversity data with that of similar law firms. This will help highlight any areas firms may wish to address.

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