Even your equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) instructor is guilty of implicit bias. That's because our brains are wired to develop them, explains Kate Townsend, uOttawa’s Senior Human Resources Advisor who facilitates EDI workplace training sessions. The goal of her workshops is not to eliminate our biases—that would be impossible—but rather to help us identify them so they don't cloud our judgment.
Why is it important to discuss unconscious bias at uOttawa?
KT: We are all influenced by some form of bias, and by the various images, references, and experiences that shape them. Implicit bias exists often without our knowledge and can be at odds with our own conscious interpretation of the values and ideas we believe in. We may like to think of ourselves as being open-minded and champions of diversity, but sometimes our actions, and more often, our inactions, can prove otherwise.
KT: Let me give you an example. In March 2019, as I was waiting to board a flight from Palm Springs, I noticed a trans lady standing by herself near my departure gate. Maybe it’s a sixth sense, or an upgrade to your “gaydar” when you transition, but it’s not uncommon for LGBTQ2S+ (the list keeps growing) people to recognize one another. Generally, that’s a good thing. But when it’s not, we refer to it as “clocking,” a term used to reflect that someone transgender has been recognized as trans.
So, I’m near my gate, and becoming increasingly uneasy in her presence, as if standing too close might draw attention to me. This is where the unconscious bias kicks in and takes over. It happens instantly. And without thinking, my instinct was to avoid contact. So, I ducked! Well, as best as I could, being 6’4” and carrying a service dog in my purse.
But it gets worse. If I’m honest, I may have been a little judgmental about her makeup and choice of wardrobe and shoes.
[Laugh] Did she end up on your flight?
KT: Same five-hour flight. Sitting next to each other! Her name was Rebecca, and she was incredibly nice. I learned that she had just celebrated her 71st birthday, and that she had started transitioning only three months prior. Suddenly, her makeup skills appeared much better than I had previously thought, as did her choice of wardrobe and shoes. And who was I to judge in the first place?
As our conversation progressed, I began to realize that my earlier discomfort was entirely based on my own insecurities, and that it was a classic case of projection. I had been so preoccupied with the added stress of travelling with a passport that didn’t match my appearance and gender that I had allowed it to take over my better judgement.
That was bias, and one I wasn’t even aware of!
I asked if she had experienced any issues travelling, assuming her gender marker was likely “M” on her passport. Her response was priceless. She leaned in, and said: “Sweetheart, I’m 71…I don’t give a #%@!”
And there you have it! In that moment, I realized that biases stand in the way of being ourselves and can be the source of missed opportunities. Had it not been for the Universe’s intervention (and twisted sense of humour, seating us together), I would have missed the opportunity to meet this remarkable person.
That’s why I am so passionate about having these conversations in unconscious bias training.
Kate, how do you define unconscious bias?
KT: In its simplest form, a bias is a preference. Our brains can store an enormous amount of information, which we access mostly through references and associations. These act as shortcuts that allow us to make decisions quickly. Those instant or automatic decisions are based on references or biases we may not even be aware of, which is why we call them unconscious or implicit bias.
Where do these biases come from?
KT: There are countless sources of influence when it comes to biases, but they do share some common traits. Since human beings are creatures of habit and comfort, we instinctively gravitate towards things we know and understand, because familiarity brings us comfort. Over time, we develop general patterns, tendencies, and ways of thinking that register as familiar and become part of our norm.
Tell me about the training you have been facilitating.
KT: Since May 2019, I have worked on several bias training initiatives. It started with a series of workshops for the Leadership Development Program and was quickly followed by a similar set of training sessions for uOGlobal participants. I later helped deliver eight training sessions for Protection Services. To be honest, the thought of training a group of law enforcement professionals was somewhat intimidating.
How did it turn out?
KT: It was incredible! The outcome was far better than any of us could have imagined. Including the participants! The day before our first session, it occurred to me that my own bias was the source of this anxiety. You can see the irony in this, right?
You also offer this training to faculties, right?
KT: Yes. I was invited to partner with the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) and the Academic Leadership Center to develop a workshop for APUO Selection Committee members. When a department or faculty hires a new professor or researcher, a committee of peers manages the selection process. To help increase diversity and foster equity, uOttawa mandates workplace equity training for anyone involved in the hiring process.
How do people react to the training?
KT: I’ve seen “AH-HA” moments in most, if not all our sessions! And judging by the snowball effect alone, I would say we are absolutely seeing the benefits. There have been countless moments of discovery for both participants and for me. But I think I benefit most, to be honest.
When you’re 6’4” in heels, you tend to stand out in a crowd! As a transgendered person, I am well acquainted with the concept of bias. I live with it every day. Being able to share my experiences with others has brought a sense of balance, in a way, and turned into a form of healing. Each new conversation creates awareness, along with new opportunities to share and connect. It doesn’t get any better than that!
What can be done by all uOttawa employees to mitigate the effects of bias?
KT: Project Implicit, hosted at Harvard University, allows you to explore your implicit bias online. It’s a great first step in doing your own self-assessment. Registration is free, and the first test takes no more than 15 minutes. You can find the test online at implicit.harvard.edu.
Take the test! Once we are aware of our own biases, we can begin to understand how they influence our actions and the choices we make.