(The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. I recognise that my privilege allows me to challenge when it may not be safe for others to do so. Stay safe). 

Last #ChooseToChallenge post of the week and in many ways I’ve saved the toughest challenge until last.

There are only so many things that governments, businesses, organisations etc can do to remove discrimination and the -isms. Many of these are big and important things, and they can definitely do more to remove inequalities that feed racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ageism, ableism and more. Admitting their role in perpetuating them would be a start, lets be honest. But underneath all of this, we cannot get away from the fact that each one of us as individuals plays a role in this. All the policies in the world cannot actually force a change in understanding and acceptance of our own limiting beliefs and how they can impact on others (they may force an outward change in behaviour but under stress and in difficult situations biases and prejudices will generally out at some point).

Obviously some of the roles that people play in this respect are more obvious than others – I’m thinking the overt racist or misogynist. I’m also thinking of the everyday sexism, racism, classism etc revealed casually and with no recognition. There are also people playing obvious roles in calling out sexism or racism when they see it, be that from individuals or institutions – current examples include weather presenters and news anchors, MPs, people who take part in sports, and many others doing this every day, unseen, and sometimes it appears unheard. Staying silent, particularly in terms of racism, is viewed by the global majority as complicity in a racist society.

But from conversations I have with friends and clients, there are many  who want to be publicly calling out discrimination but who do not do so. For some, it simply is not safe to do so either because of direct and immediate danger were they to do so or because of trauma from events that they have themselves experienced in the past. But for others this is due to lack of confidence, feeling like they don’t understand enough, or, maybe, if they really think about it, feeling a bit uncomfortable about their own views, behaviours or assumptions. So perhaps the hardest work that we have to do is to #ChooseToChallenge ourselves. Challenge ourselves to understand our own biases and our own behaviours. Challenge ourselves to learn, understand different perspectives and to do more.

So how do we do that? Here are some of the suggestions that I use in my inclusive leadership development programme:

Question your assumptions: Unconscious biases form when our brains take their usually helpful pattern recognition way of making decisions and apply that to limited information about groups of people or situations – leading to false and unhelpful stereotypes such as “men are better leaders” or “black women are aggressive”. To start you thinking about your unconscious biases you could take some of the Harvard Implicit Assumption tests – these have their critics but I find them useful for starting conversations. You could also think about scenarios. For example – if you were walking down a street late at night and a group of youths were coming towards you on the same side of the road wearing hoodies, what would you do? What is your instinctive feeling? Would it feel different if they were identifiably black? Or white? Or female? Or your friend wants to introduce you to their new partner and this turns out to be a same-sex partner. What is your immediate reaction?

Try the “10 most trusted test”. Take a piece of paper and write a list of the 10 people you trust most with decisions and discussions that affect your life and work. Then describe what you know about their gender, ethnicity, education, and age. What do you notice? Is everyone on your list very similar to each other? And to you? It is natural to surround ourselves with people with whom we can easily identify similarities, but we might be assuming that we don’t have things in common with people who don’t immediately appear the same as us, and missing out on some joyful interactions.

Do an audit of your social and other media influences on social media. Do you always listen to the same type of music, read the same authors or magazines, follow, like or retweet the same people? Most of us exist to some extent in echo chambers that enhance confirmation and availability biases (appearing to disproportionately back up our own views). Be aware that social media platform algorithms accentuate this by showing you more of the same.

Understand your privilege: Privilege is the opportunities and advantages afforded to us through no effort of our own. It is not about wealth or enduring hardship (although these can contribute). It is possible to be privileged in some areas (e.g. education and home life), but not in others (e.g. religion and sexual orientation). For an interactive way of understanding privilege you can take the allyship race devised by the BBC.

The point of all this is that biases and stereotypes are formed by experience and influences, often when young and often over long periods of time. Gender stereotypes that influence children’s automatic assignment of careers to men and women get set around 6-9 years of age (and it is everyone’s responsibility to do something about that). Stereotypes and assumptions are typically reduced by seeing things from different perspectives.

If you have uncovered a bias, it can sometimes be helpful to understand where it comes from. For example, I understand the origins of my moderate bias towards white faces compared to black faces in the Harvard IAT test as partly stemming from growing up in a very white area where the only time I saw black faces were in the news – and as we know only too well from recent events, the Media is institutionally racist so these weren’t generally positive stories. Reflecting on the origins is not to give yourself a justification excuse – it’s to identify how you might challenge those assumptions. For example, you can seek out counter-examples of the stereotypes you hold. Seeking different perspectives – including those you don’t agree with, can start to chip away at those assumptions.

This is not a comfortable challenge. Most people don’t want to feel that they are prejudiced. But once you are aware of an unconscious bias, it becomes a prejudice and then it is your responsibility to ensure it doesn’t affect your decisions and your interactions with those around you. Short term this means making sure your decisions are based on genuinely appropriate criteria, catching yourself when you make an assumption, not making decisions in a hurry or when tired. Longer term it is about actively working to understand other perspectives, and understand the role of individuals (i.e. you) and organisations in dismantling systemic racism and sexism.

No-one said it would be easy. But I hope you #ChooseToChallenge

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