Structural Barriers or Unconscious Bias?

The difficulties that the BAME community face in relation to both gaining employment and ascending up the ranks of an organisation are often put down to the notion of ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias occurs when a person gives special preference to another person due to a subliminal belief that they are similar. While the notion of ‘similarity’ used in this sense can refer to shared interests, unconscious bias also results in individuals polarising towards others due to a shared ethnic or cultural background.

This has hugely negative consequences in the work environment, and is thought to be a major factor in the persistent lack of diversity in the workplace, particularly within senior positions.

Here is an apt example: a white British person in a senior position is tasked with selecting a candidate for a promotion. There are three candidates; one is Asian, one is black, one is white British. All candidates are equally qualified for the role. Unconscious bias would dictate that the staff member tasked with making the decision opts for the third candidate, due to an unthinking belief that they are similar to one another.

When the situation is laid out in this way, it becomes apparent how the diversity problem in the workplace is able to take root and proliferate. The prevalence of unconscious bias sheds light on the extent to which the odds are stacked against the BAME groups. Being consistently denied opportunities- despite being adequately qualified- has a hugely detrimental effect on self-belief.

For this reason, it is not uncommon for members of BAME groups to refrain from applying for a job they are overqualified for. An implicit assumption is made that favour will be given to white candidates.

When the situation is laid out in this way, it becomes apparent how the diversity problem in the workplace is able to take root and proliferate.

Conversely, those of a white British background are more likely to apply for a job they are underqualified for. Despite the injustice involved, lack of experience and/or qualifications can be offset somewhat by having an ethnic background that is looked upon favourably by recruiters.

For this reason, many commentators feel that the term ‘unconscious bias’ is overused, and deployed in order to obfuscate what is actually a far more complex and deep-rooted issue.

Although unconscious bias can be used to explain some instances where members of BAME groups have failed to gain promotions or fulfil their potential, it does not explain the instances of very real racism that still occur.

Furthermore, it does not explain why white candidates have far more success at the application stage. Given that candidates have not met the employers at this stage, it would be very difficult for a notion of ‘similarity’ to have emerged.

Instead, BAME candidates’ lack of success can only be explained through structural barriers and ‘conscious’ bias. The Guardian approached those who felt affected by a glass ceiling in the workplace. One person who was responsible for shortlisting candidates was told ‘not to call anyone with an African-sounding name’. Incidents such as this demonstrate that the racial inequality in employment extends far beyond unconscious bias.

Whilst unconscious bias can be used to explain some instances of BAME individuals failing to gain promotions or fulfil their potential, it does not explain the instances of very real racism that still occur.

This is corroborated by an experiment conducted by the DWP in 2009, which involved the creation of around 2000 fake CVs for 1000 real job vacancies. Two CVs were submitted for each role. Both of the candidates were equally qualified, but one had a name of British origin and one had an ‘ethnic minority-sounding name’.

The results were conclusive; the latter were far less-likely to receive a response.

In light of this, it can be argued that members of BAME groups are structurally and systematically disadvantaged, while white individuals have it easier at every stage of employment.

Progress has been made since this experiment was conducted. For example, income distribution for black workers is almost comparable to that for white workers. However, only 6% of top management positions are held by an ethnic minority person. Not only this, but just 36 of 1000 of Britain’s most powerful positions are occupied by members of BAME groups.

Although some positive change has occurred, the system is still rigged in favour of those from a white background.

Header Image: iStock Photo/Washington Examiner]

Written by
Cameron Boyle