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Discrimination and unconscious bias - Is it OK to laugh about it?

Discrimination and unconscious bias - Is it OK to laugh about it?

You are unquestionably biased. For many, this is difficult to understand and accept. Suppressing this fact and avoiding discussion of your unconscious bias will only strengthen the time-bomb ticking away in teams worldwide.

As intuitive, sensitive and professional people we should be above such prejudice? Surely within the public sector, with diversity, equality and accessibility firmly on the agenda we should rise above such primitive thought? Truth is... we don’t.

As sited on the CIPD website,

“...we simply cannot process everything about each new person we encounter. As a result, information about people and objects is suppressed, grouped and placed into easy to use categories. This enables us to make rapid judgments about new people and situations without having to process in great detail everything about every individual and context.”

“This prejudgement of groups of people is both normal, and to be expected as our default position. Understanding that prejudgments are automatic is critical to understanding and countering the effect of the biases we ALL have.”

So we think things that are triggered naturally in our brain and we don’t talk about them. We fear judgement at best and creating hostilities and conflict at worst. This fear pushes honest conversations and productive ways forward underground. It is no laughing matter?

So everyone has unconscious bias?

Yes, we discriminate automatically; neuro-science supports this assertion. So how can we best accept and work with these biases? How can we help others and ourselves? Below are three discussion points that our workshops have seen emerge in groups time and time again:

  • Confession is not abdication of responsibility
    It is not good enough to admit bias and do nothing to address it
  • Fighting the fight is futile
    Unduly harsh challenging is counter-productive and does not change bias, it just makes people hide it and it remains problematic
  • Acceptance unlocks our pathway to address bias
    We can develop positive strategies for ensuring progressive equality

A key question we can ask ourselves is, ‘can we elevate ourselves to a position of acceptance and therefore facilitate others in elevating themselves?’

Let’s look at each of the above discussion points in more detail.

Confession is not abdication of responsibility:

A Head Teacher once told me that he was an ‘intellectual snob’. This self-confession was aimed at excusing himself for some judgemental views he held on those who found the curriculum more challenging than others. He talked about how he knew this was unfair and was even a little embarrassed by his view-point.

He did however maintain it and still, to this day, argues his point about ‘academic intellect’ being the criteria for certain roles, positions and opportunities. This is unconscious bias manifesting itself as prejudice and is very likely to have held back many an enterprising pupil in his school. It may well have also dissuaded many applying teachers who did not fit his ‘category’ of ‘academically sound’.

This Head Teacher uses his own perception of ‘good’ in his selection processes for both employments of teachers and in pupil ‘streaming’. In simple terms, if someone has similar views to him, that person is good; if they are not like him, they will not fit in. Does this sound familiar? To site an example, recent figures show that Civil Servant appointments are drawn from a narrow social and economic pool with 86% of fast track places given to white applicants and only 1.8% given to ethnic minority applicants.

Those from poorer economic backgrounds were also glaringly under represented with only 8 successful applications from over 700. Reference: Independent 16th February 2016.

Fighting the fight is futile:

Clearly, bias does exist and manifests in the ways outlined above as well as in many other situation. This does not make it acceptable!

What we do know is that by attacking or making unconscious bias a taboo we reinforce it within our society. Let us take a moment to ask a challenging question here; If we take a polarising position on a bias view, are we simply judging those judging others? This is, once again, a difficult view to understand and accept. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

So what are we saying? If we challenge in a forthright manner we reinforce it and if we do not challenge then we condone or collude with it? This is not exactly an ideal situation for those of us striving for ‘representation of the community’ within the workplace. Most people are very aware of an obvious lack of diversity in certain positions and organisations / institutions that claim to represent ‘us’.

So what strategy for challenging does work?

Understanding and acceptance of ‘unconscious bias’ and steering away from judgement and criticism can unlock dialog and begin to raise awareness. It is through raising awareness and provoking ‘conscious’ thought that unconscious bias can be addressed at a mature and productive level. To quote Carl R Rogers, “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.”

Acceptance unlocks our pathway to address bias:

Deep down many of us know this. But... how can we accept or even tolerate what results in unfairness? How can we ‘hear’ and empathise with things that we disagree with so profoundly?

We take a bad tasting medicine and restrain ourselves from many gratifications because we know that in the long run our short-term discomfort will make us better and stronger and that we will reap the benefits of our discipline. Our very conscious and often less immediate response to such events more often than not result in longer-term benefits that outweigh immediate gratification. This does of course take a broader and longer-term perspective and therefore belief in the process and conviction to change.

Maya Angelou frames the concept of the benefits of change wonderfully, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

Can we laugh at unconscious bias?

A Paradox; is defined as, “a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.”

Laughing about unconscious bias may in fact be a good example of a paradox! Let’s break this down. Many of us know that we are all unconsciously bias. We know that when we consider and challenge ourselves on these biases that we can see their inaccuracies, assumptions and generalisations. In addition, we know that we have little control over thinking in this way as our brains automatically categorise and assume things based on these assumptions. So thinking of things we logically know can often be wrong or even inappropriate. This automatic response is ironic at least if not amusing. It is like a form of internal turret’s, thinking things before we can stop it happening, wanting to cover it up, feeling unaccepted because of our impulsive reactions.

In the vast majority of group discussions regarding unconscious bias, people are brave enough to share some of their own biases. In doing so, four things generally start to happen.

Firstly, people ridicule themselves for what they think in certain situations or about certain people, ‘shaking their heads’ in disbelief more often than not.

Secondly, those listening develop empathy and see a funny side to the anecdotes. How can this person I know and understand as an intelligent, professional and a decent human being really think that? They empathise and understand because they recognise themselves and relax with the realisation that there is a shared phenomenon.

Thirdly, others start to feel ‘safe’ enough to share their biases as well because they feel that they will not be judged for doing so. They often share in a similar self-defacing way, shedding light on the inaccuracies in their categorisation and show awareness of a wider world view.

The fourth and perhaps most dynamic reaction is that people start to explore what they can do about it. The humour and light-hearted trusting approach to the conversation has instigated understanding and a motivation to address the issues with each other. The conversation generally turns a productive and stimulating corner.

As Mary Hirsch, Humorist says, “Humour is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”

The Paradox that unlocks

Using humour does not mean to make light of a serious issue. Humour is a fabulous tool that helps enable a safe environment for people to discuss sensitive subjects without fear of reprisals. Fear of reprisals, judgements, commendation and conflict are what closes down such conversations and their resulting positive outcomes, not humour. Here is what we know can be done to reduce the impact of unconscious bias. All of these key pointers stem from open discussion not suppression; humour can help to:

  • Accept that ‘you’ and everyone else have biases
  • Enable people to be honest about biases and not to simply choose the more socially acceptable biases to discuss and address
  • Raise awareness of unconscious bias within the organisations, its impact and what can be done to manage or counter it
  • Encourage people to be honest about their biases and to act to manage or control them
  • Avoid demonising bias and preventing others from discussing (but not just expressing) their biases
  • Avoid emotive language or confrontation


Can we laugh at unconscious bias? Perhaps we should? Whilst a little radical for some, positive change in this area has been slow and the subject has been shrouded by judgement and conflict almost without exception since it emerged on social and professional agendas. Perhaps it’s time to change our thinking around, not just unconscious bias, but how we address it.

Here’s some top tips to encourage open discussions and unconscious bias awareness in your organisation. It’s all about creating a culture where positive challenge and questions are the creators of an innovative and forward thinking workforce

Recognise bias thinking

Create opportunities to think differently

3Question rules – why are they there?

4Pace decision making


6Fact based judgement

7Adopt 360 mentoring

8Recognize feelings and thoughts

6Create an enquiring culture

Speak to us about our unconscious bias one-hour intro session or our new workshops. We can help you and your team be forward thinking and compete in a global market.

Further reading

Bank bosses should hire more senior women if they want their bonuses, says Government-appointed report

Virgin Money boss calls for executive pay to come with a requirement to improve representation of women in top financial roles...

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