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Unconscious bias – how do we tackle it?

Unconscious bias – how do we tackle it?

Cate Turner (pictured) recently provided enlightening training in unconscious bias to ERMC students. Here she explains why it’s vital for future church leaders.

Unconscious bias is an issue for everyone. Although it may be hard to recognise in ourselves, it’s a normal part of the way the human brain works. We all seek out people who seem familiar, who seem part of our ‘in group’: they give us a feeling of safety and security. Think about when you join an event or go to a party where there are no friends or colleagues, who do you talk to first? We are all drawn to people who feel familiar in some way, whether that’s because of gender, ethnicity, style of dress, etc.
Bias plays out in all sorts of places and first impressions count – think about interview panels. Evidence shows that when we join interview panels, we tend to recruit people like ourselves with a similar background and experiences.

We also tend to give preference to people who dominate society – in our culture, in the UK and Europe, indisputably this is white men. This won’t be news to most people and indeed many of us have received training on this issue in our workplace. So why does this matter? From a broad perspective, this matters because:
• Everyone should feel welcome
• Everyone’s gifts should be recognised
• Everyone should be celebrated as a unique creation of God

But there are also specific reasons why this matters now to ERMC students and to the future of the Church of England.

How does this impact on students and the Church of England?

The stereotype of a minister in the Church, is still a white, middle-class man. This is still reflective of the situation out in the parishes despite over 25 years of women’s ministry, although that’s slowly changing. This stereotype feeds unconscious bias and can impact on judgements made about who may have a genuine call to ministry. People who don’t conform to the stereotype may even be refused the chance to train as a minister and, if we narrow the field, we could lose talented people.

If we continue to train mostly those people who conform to the stereotype, then ministers and leaders in the Church will never become representative of today’s diverse population and that means that we will fail to attract new people from the wider population to our congregations.

At ERMC, future leaders in the church are being trained and developed. It’s vitally important that they are aware of bias in themselves to enable them to tackle that bias in their churches and act as role models in the future for colleagues and congregations.

How do we tackle unconscious bias?

• Be aware of your biases
• Review your network – who is missing from your circle? Whose voice don’t you hear?
• Think about dominant groups – what can you do to change the paradigm?
• Reframe your ‘in groups’ – how can you include others who are different to you?
• Train your brain to notice your bias and make sure you don’t exclude those people.
• Challenge your thinking and get others to help you – do they see any bias in you?

We can all take a conscious decision not to let our bias affect our behaviour – we can try to do things differently. We need to widen that feeling of who is included. It can be as simple as keeping this front of mind.

If, before a critical decision, you remind yourself to be fair and actively focus on not being biased, your decisions will improve. Slow down decision-making, carefully consider why a decision has been made and question cultural stereotypes.

Once you have made a decision, hold yourself accountable – be ready to explain it to a colleague to validate your decision. It’s also vital to monitor yourself: look at the decisions you make. How often do you favour people like you, as opposed to people from a more diverse group? It sounds too easy, but with practice over time, it is proven to work.

Unconscious bias training for students is part of ERMC’s response to the ‘From Lament To Action’ report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce. To read more, visit: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2021-04/FromLamentToAction-report.pdf