How do we overcome unconscious bias?


“If you’re human, you have bias,” says Howard Ross. “Just like we breathe, we have bias.”

Ross is talking in the teaser reel of Bias, filmmaker Robin Hauser’s new feature-length documentary about unconscious bias and how it affects us socially and in the workplace, influencing the way we hire, pay and make funding decisions. (Hauser is also the filmmaker behind the acclaimed documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap.)

Bias is part of human nature

According to the experts in the film, implicit (unconscious) bias happens when our brains make automatic judgments about people and situations without us realizing it. These biases are shaped by our backgrounds, cultures and experiences. We all hold these biases – they are a part of human nature – and they can have a profound influence over our decision-making in the workplace.

“I wanted to understand how our hidden biases influence the snap judgments and assumptions we make every day about people based on our perceptions of gender, age, race, sexual orientation,” Hauser says of the film, which will be released in early 2018. “I took the IAT (Implicit Association Test) and was shocked to learn about how biased I am. I think understanding unconscious bias and how it affects each one of us can help us work toward a more equitable society.”

But how do we fix a problem that’s so ingrained in our experience as human?

Raising awareness of unconscious bias

Part of the solution is just being aware of it. We introduced the preview of Bias to approximately 50 participants of the International Women’s Forum Leadership Conference at the Ericsson Studio in Stockholm earlier this month. The group was welcomed by Elaine Weidman Grunewald, followed by a presentation on Diversity and Inclusion and Women in Tech Challenges.

We take this issue very seriously at Ericsson. More than 6,500 Ericsson managers have participated in our unconscious bias workshops since we started offering them in 2015. We also have a web-based e-training that is available to all employees. It’s this kind of work, plus the discussions that will be sparked by Hauser’s new film, that help break down the walls. But it’s also not something you can do once and forget. Facing up to bias needs to become part of our culture.

Diversity and inclusion are good business

There are real consequences to bias. Diversity and inclusion are strategic to our business. A workforce with a broad range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences drives innovation and makes the business more resilient. It is a key success factor in an increasingly global, multi-faceted and competitive market. Tackling unconscious bias is a key issue in the ICT industry, which has been traditionally male-dominated, but the effects spread to the core of our experience, making it key to fulfilling two important United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – SDG 5 (Gender Equality) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities).

For instance, a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states that gender inequality is costing sub-Saharan Africa an average of USD 95 billion a year. Connectivity, if affordable and fully accessible, has the potential to allow everyone to benefit from the digital age on more equal terms. But we need to do our best to make sure that these benefits are not restricted based on bias.

Culture contribution rather than culture fit

The diversity of Ericsson’s employees is one of our major strengths as a business. It is this collective mixture of individuals, cultures and organizational experiences that drives our innovation, makes us stand out from the competition and delivers high performance for our customers. This brings to mind a final quote from the preview from Judith Michelle Williams, the former Global Head of Diversity at Dropbox: “Instead of hiring someone for a culture fit, I want to hire them for a culture contribution. And that culture contribution might be greatest if they are different from me.”

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