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What is unconscious bias in the workplace, and how can organisations address it?

If we can build a safe space for our people to share their opinions and reflect on them without judgement, it can create a paradigm shift in how we deal with bias

What is unconscious bias in the workplace, and how can organisations address it?

There has been an explosion of conversations around gender equality in the last decade

"When will it be my turn?", this is the underlying, often unexpressed question that accentuates many women's lives. Whether it is gender pay gaps at work or gender roles at home, they continue to struggle to be seen, to be heard and to be recognised. There are invisible, often unrecognised barriers that continue to fuel this struggle. The question remains, how do we recognise them? How do we challenge them? How do we involve others to challenge them?

I work with organisations to help their employees face their mental barriers and work around them using tools such as theatre, storytelling and mindfulness. One of the most powerful tools I have found amongst these to recognise and analyse biases is interactive theatre.

Here is a medium that brings the passive audience right into the narrative to challenge their own assumptions. It asks the spectator to get involved, think, reason, critically examine the situation and come up with a solution.

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This act of self-inspection and reasoning is what I believe will take the conversation to the next level. Instead of passive assimilation of information, there is an active involvement in the scenes (and prejudices) being played out. Listening, reasoning, questioning, reassessing and reframing - all of these are necessary skills to tackle biases, and interactive theatre invites the audience to engage in this process.

As a form of storytelling, it picks up from the experiences and real-life learning of the participants. It invites us to share our stories, while opening them up to others - a process that can be both discomforting and cathartic at the same time. It asks us to have difficult conversations.

These stories are common, yet often overlooked. For example, women in sales who talk about selective female hiring in the function, because the gender is perceived as being "too soft" for the role. Or women who have tried returning to the workplace after maternity breaks, only to find that they had to prove their worth all over again.

And these are not just one-off instances. They are backed by research. One such research showed that while being considered for a promotion, women are most likely to be evaluated based on their contributions while men are most likely to be evaluated based on their potential.

When it comes to feedback, research shows that women typically get feedback which is vague and based on assumptions, while men tend to get more detailed and specific feedback. This is a clear example of unconscious bias that often goes unnoticed.

I have observed that leaders with many years of experience are especially likely to fall into the trap of believing that their judgements are fair and true. Unless they question their assumptions and reassess where a belief comes from, these judgements and hence, behaviours that they promote, can go unchecked for years and even seep right into the fabric of a company's culture.

These are the kind of unnoticed, unaddressed biases that need to be highlighted consistently, relentlessly, and through every medium possible.

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Take for example the undeclared monthly pains or the invisible burden of home, women have layers of unspoken pressures that they constantly attempt to hide in the workplace to avoid being judged. Simultaneously on all fronts they also have to also deal with pre-determined stereotypes and expectations such as to 'adjust' or 'care'.

Interactive theatre acts as a catalyst to generate these discussions and inspire action towards a constructive outcome, building conducive workspaces for all.

There has been an explosion of conversations around gender equality in the last decade. And while this is indeed imperative, and while awareness is the first step towards change, the second step is acceptance. Before we can begin changing mindsets, we must recognise and accept the biases we are living with. And that is a hard step for many to take.

But if we can build a safe space for our people to share their opinions and reflect on them without judgement, it can create a paradigm shift in how we deal with bias.

With empathy and understanding. With facts and not assumptions. With a collective form of individualism where each person actively seeks to challenge stereotypes, fight bias and broaden perceptions - for themselves and others. And that truly would be #EachForEqual.

Also Read: Cisco accused of discrimination against Indian employee in US

(The author is Founder, The Inner Startup Director, Roots & Wings Theatre.)

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