Unconscious bias is a topic that people will often shy away from, yet we should be doing the exact opposite. For me, it’s something that’s always been there. I’ve experienced it throughout my career and in my life, and I know so many people in my network and local communities have experienced the same. Being privy to stories that have been shared over the years, there are too many people that have been hindered by unconscious bias at every step of their journey. A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to present at a careers workshop, as part of the Avei’a Pacific Leadership Programme. I walked away with many learnings, but one powerful theme really hit home: unconscious bias. Whether or not we choose to believe it, it’s a real barrier for so many people in New Zealand. 

How big is the gap?

When it comes to bias and cultural norms, there seems to be a significant difference between where some of us believe we are vs. where we should be. It definitely came as a bit of a shock when we started scrolling through Pasifika LinkedIn profiles during the workshop – looking for real examples of Pasifika leaders who are shining the light for others. What did we find? Very few...which made it so clear how big that gap really is! 

Changing the individual narrative

This is perhaps the most significant barrier – something that can either hinder or empower you. With cultural bias in particular, there are two sides that I see. First, is when you assume that you’re profoundly different (because of your culture). When you automatically make assumptions along these lines, you’re walking into scenarios with a pre-determined narrative, expecting that to be reciprocated by others. Yes, your culture makes you different, but we are all different – we are human and no human is the same. Our cultural differences are there of course and there are certainly times that those differences inform others’ perception prematurely or negatively, however that is not always the case. It may be sometimes but not always. 

The other side is when genuine cultural differences are minimised or ignored and you feel that you are expected to be the same as everyone else – when in fact, your cultural norms or differences can be used to your advantage. 

The problem is, if you don’t change your narrative, you don’t allow space for others to change their narrative too. We each have so much power in our story and origins to shape that narrative - both for ourselves and for others. What are some of the things you can pick out to propel yourself forward? For Pasifika and Māori, we’re brought up with some powerful leadership values e.g. empathy, service, respect. These are values that come natural to us because of our cultural norms, because of who we are and where we come from. These cultural norms are in fact our super powers and it is up to us to ensure that our narrative allows space for ourselves and others to let these things shine and propel us forward!

Expect it, but don’t accept it

From the time we are born, we learn and take on beliefs and values about the world. We get most of our beliefs and values from our whanau, friends and the media. Even well-meaning people who think they are culturally competent have these unconscious biases as part of their upbringing. The human brain is prone to bias, and we can’t change that, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept it! There is immense power in being aware of its presence (while not accepting it as the status quo), whether that’s cultural bias, gender bias, or even age bias. You have a role to play in addressing that bias – helping people on their journey – something which can be fruitful for both sides! 

Some of the examples of unconscious bias include:

  • Similarity/affinity bias – essentially a preference for working with people that are similar to themselves e.g. graduates from certain schools, people who have worked for specific companies etc.

  • Name bias – comes into play most often during the interview stage, with hiring managers unconsciously excluding qualified applicants because of an applicant’s name.  

  • The Horn/Halo Effect – when someone’s performance or character is generalised based on one trait or event.

  • Age bias – this comes down to assuming one’s experience or proficiency is based purely on their age. 

  • Maternal bias – an assumption that women are less committed to their careers than men

Navigating workplace biases

You walk into a meeting and notice a level of bias, but what next? How do you propel yourself forward? How do you navigate it and change the path? Soft skills (like empathy) can play a big role in changing the view here. Yes, your organisation must shoulder much of the responsibility, but it can’t be down to the business alone. The most powerful thing you can do is open a dialogue and speak up. Even if it’s a quiet word with your manager during a 1-1, bringing these issues to light, and tackling unconscious bias together, is the only way to move forward. 

Final thoughts

Reflecting on the recent two-day workshop, it’s brought to light that we still have a long way to go. Whether that’s bias towards race, gender, age, religion, sexuality or any other aspect of someone’s identity – what really matters is that we are bringing these issues to light and doing everything we can to minimise it. I know from personal experience that we must cultivate self-love, self-awareness and confidence to overcome the bias while we fight toward earning the respect of others. My experience tells me that time alone will not solve the unconscious bias we currently experience — only action can, and we must all buy in.

Kōrero Mai, Kōrero Atu, Mauri Tū, Mauri Ora