By Lindsay Marcaccio

Many of us are unaware we carry biases towards gender, race, religion, ethnicity, etc. These are known as implicit or unconscious biases. Our lived and cultural experiences, upbringing and media shape our unconscious thoughts about others, and often influence our communications.

What is implicit bias?

According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, implicit biases are revealed when we use one of the two different systems employed by the brain to make decisions–system 1 thinking. This thinking is reflexive and automatic like hitting the breaks when something runs in front of the car.

Implicit biases are unconscious thoughts influenced by many factors. Acknowledgment is the first step to mitigating them.

We display our implicit biases through actions or words which are often so subtle we aren’t aware of using or receiving them. For example, a manager might say to an Asian-Canadian employee, “you speak English very well,” but English is their first language. These hidden insults are called microagressions. As communications professionals we need to be aware of our microagressions and biases, and how they may lead us to depict others less favourably, or make poor decisions when it comes to developing messages.

What does it mean for communications?

If we are unaware of our biased thoughts and how they infiltrate our reflexive thinking, it stands to reason our written and spoken words, and images we choose will be influenced. For instance, in 2018 H&M chose a black child to model a sweatshirt with the message “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Nivea created the “white is purity” campaign. And Dove produced a commercial showing images of a black woman washing and shedding her skin to reveal a white woman. How could these campaigns have gone unchecked before going public? And what made it easy for them to be signed off or approved?

How many times have you unconsciously selected a photo of a white man to represent executive leadership in an article or promotional material? How many times have you perused stock photo galleries only to see a sea of monoculture (typically white) representation? Each situation is an example of how an individual’s implicit biases can affect their professional decisions about words and images chosen, and ultimately perpetuate the stereotypes and assumptions which feed implicit biases.

Implicit biases can alter your cultural competency and sensitivity – your ability to understand and communicate across cultures. If your professional role involves developing a communications strategy for diverse audiences, your implicit biases are likely impacting your messaging and how they are received. You may unknowingly be creating an unwelcoming environment.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate our implicit biases

According to William Yimbo, education specialist for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Calgary, awareness is the first step. Through awareness we begin to question our own personal implicit biases which lead us to more conscious and logical thinking. “We must embrace all of this at the personal and organizational level to mitigate implicit bias,” said Yimbo.

Self reflection about implicit bias can be challenging. There are tools such as the Implicit Association Bias test, which can help individuals and organizations determine a bias index or baseline from which to build a support strategy.

If you are responsible for hiring team members, you could have the greatest effect on mitigating implicit biases within your organization. Start to build “blended teams” which will provide diverse perspectives, and can help to call attention to choices which may lead to a situation similar to H&M, Nivea or Dove’s blunders. And when you are going through the hiring process, Yimbo advises using a diverse hiring panel to ensure different perspectives which can lessen the use of affinity bias to justify hiring those we feel will be a good cultural fit for us.

As communications professionals we have a responsibility to create ethical campaigns and anti-racist messages. As long as we remain unaware of our implicit biases, microagressions and cultural competency we perpetuate all forms of biases and the systems which minimize equal opportunities for all. No matter how good our intentions are.


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