FIVE LESSONS ON BIAS IN COMMS
Earlier this year, following the death of George Floyd, the conversation about racism, bias and prejudice was raging around the world.
I was acutely aware of three things:
- How little I truly understood about the lived and historic experience of marginalised communities in the UK and elsewhere in the world;
- That my ignorance was only matched by my extraordinary levels of privilege;
- And that marketing, PR, advertising and communications could either contribute to or help to address discrimination and prejudice
I didn’t say a lot at the time of the protests and debates. I didn’t feel well enough informed to do so. And I had no intention of making the discussion about me – my feelings of discomfort, my shame, my ignorance – or of asking my friends to educate me. As I saw it, my job was to stand alongside those who needed to know that I was there for them, support the actions they wanted to take and to educate myself.
I also knew that there would come a time when the news cycle would move on and I decided THAT would be the time for me to do something more. Something simple, concrete and practical to try and bring awareness back to the issue. Yesterday was the first step.
I invited Rosa Arias Yague – the Founder of Egalvia – to come a run a free workshop on unconscious bias in communications for members of the Actually community: to explore our own biases and how these might be showing up in our content and communications.
The workshop was not recorded but I wanted to share here five of the things I learnt during a packed 60 minutes in the hope that it might encourage or inspire you. And watch this space for future workshops, resources and discussion on this issue.
WE ARE ALL BIASED
I have always considered myself to be an unbiased person. And yet over the course of this year I have come to realise how untrue that is and how many blind spots I have.
What Rosa explained during this workshop was that the brain receives over 11 million pieces of information per second. We are only capable of consciously processing about 40. Our brains are therefore hardwired to take shortcuts; to save on processing time and capacity by making assumptions. What that means is that we ALL have blind spots based on those completely unconscious assumptions.
Unfortunately, our blind spots are often further entrenched by living and working in an echo-chamber that leaves us safely in our comfort zone of homogeneity.
During the course of the workshop Rosa asked us to complete a very simple exercise which I share here in the hope that you will also take this first step.
Get a piece of paper and write down the names of 5-6 people (excluding your family) that you would consider to be a part of your inner circle: people you trust and turn to when you need help, advice or support.
OK, now go and put a tick next to the names of those people on your list:
- Who identify as the same gender as you
- Who are in the same age group as you
- Who share your ethnicity
- Who are the same nationality as you
- Who have the same sexual orientation as you
- Who come from a similar socio-economic background as you
- Who speak the same first language as you
- Who experience the same degree of physical or mental ability as you
Now review the list. How much diversity is there on that list? This is your inner circle. These are the voices you listen to, the people whose opinions you seek, who help you to make decisions and make sense of the world.
How likely is it, with this inner circle, that your blind spots will be challenged?
DIMENSIONS OF PRIVILEGE
Going into this workshop I was, I thought, aware of my privileges: I am a white, heterosexual, middle class, cisgender woman living in a highly developed country. The only way I could be MORE privileged would be if I was a cisgender man! Or so I thought.
What the discussion in the workshop showed me was just how many other dimensions of privilege exist – and how many I benefit from.
I don’t just live in the UK, I am a UK citizen with a passport and can reside legally here without fear of deportation.
I speak English as a first language and can, therefore, access most services without disproportionate stress and effort.
Although I am not ‘young’, I am still benefiting from a societal bias on age.
I have no obvious physical disability, distinguishing marks, visible scars or unusual physical characteristics that might mark me out as ‘other’.
I can pretty much pass as an extravert in a world biased towards extraversion.
I am neuro-typical.
And so on.
Consider for a moment all the ways in which you are privileged. And now ask yourself, how might you use that position of privilege to support and advocate for those who don’t have your advantages?
AWARENESS IS KEY
As I explained above, our brains are wired to make assumption and, by definition our ‘blind spots’, are therefore unconscious.
Our neurological make-up is not however an excuse for bias and prejudice. We can easily overcome the wiring – but first we must become aware of it. This requires a combination of education and mindful awareness. Read, listen, learn and then consciously, every day and in every important moment – consider.
When you select an image for your social media – consider, are my biases at play here?
When you right about an experience, tell a story or share an anecdote, stop and consider – how much is what I am about to share shaped by my biases and how can I amend it?
When selecting a new recruit, a new supplier, a potential collaborator or talking to a possible client – bring mindful awareness to the choices you are making. Are they objective? Or informed by your biases?
THIS IS HARD WORK
There are so many relevant factors to consider in the context of marketing, PR and communications.
Is your content truly representative of our diverse global family?
Is it accessible to all those who might choose to engage with it?
Might it be considered offensive or harmful to others?
Taking the time to work through these questions – and others – may be time-consuming but it is necessary.
Is it comfortable? No.
Is it hard work? Yes.
But do you know what is probably more uncomfortable and difficult? Living in a society that marginalises, alienates and discriminates against you. THAT’S hard.
I WILL KEEP GETTING THIS WRONG
Just writing this blog I am conscious of how much I am probably getting wrong. Each time I open my mouth to speak on this issue, I am aware that I will probably say something wrong. For a recovering perfectionist, people pleaser that is a challenge! But here’s the thing, I’d rather try and fail than not try at all. And I will keep learning. Keep trying. Keep failing and falling. Keep getting back up and trying again. I don’t ask for understanding or sympathy for my bruises and bumps – they are a small price to pay for someday, hopefully getting this right.
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