Check your bias

February 13, 2019 | Society, Campus Life
What does it mean to be biased against other people?

Does it mean being overtly sexist? Deliberately racist? Does it mean consciously impeding another person’s success because of some element of their identity?

Sometimes, but not always. In fact, even people with the best of intentions are often guilty of unconscious bias.

Irfan Chaudhry, director of MacEwan University’s Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity (OHRDE), explains that unconscious bias occurs when our social and cultural backgrounds affect our perception of specific groups of people without us even realizing it. “Those biases lead to patterns of behaviour, and those patterns of behaviour lead to entire systems that are discriminatory,” he says.

Recently MacEwan began hosting monthly unconscious bias workshops for university employees. The workshops are voluntary, and focus specifically on forms of unconscious bias that are most prevalent in post-secondary settings across Canada. This includes issues that affect both students and employees. For example, research shows that affinity bias – the tendency to favour those who are like us – is prevalent in hiring committees, reference letters and application approvals. Gender-based bias is also an issue – a recent study found that after parental leave, male economists experience an increased probability of tenure, while women in the same role see their chances decrease. this is because men are more likely to have the opportunity to use this leave to publish in top-tier journals.

We want to provide a better experience for people of all identities who come here to work, study or visit.
—Irfan Chaudhry

Ena Chaisson, an international admissions consultant, recently participated in one of the workshops, and believes employees from across the university can benefit from the experience. “If you are in a position to evaluate, hire or supervise others, this session is particularly relevant,” she says. “It helps people address that sense of ‘stranger danger.’ Judgment disappears in the face of knowledge.”

Count yourself in

Even though initiatives like the unconscious bias workshops make clear MacEwan’s commitment to diversity, the university currently lacks data on exactly what that diversity looks like.

That’s going to change soon though. A voluntary diversity survey was recently sent to employees to collect basic demographic information (guided by the federal Employment Equity Act) such as gender, race, sexual orientation and disability.

“This survey will provide a snapshot of who we are, and that allows us to understand and serve our employees and students better,” explains Irfan.

MacEwan employees seem to agree on the value of being counted in – many have already chosen time to complete the survey, giving the university a clearer understanding if its workforce.

Irfan says that the data will also help the university address unconscious bias when it comes to hiring. “The survey might show that our workforce is lacking demographics that you would otherwise see in the general population – that might make us realize that we need to be putting job posts in locations where those groups are likely to access them, so that our candidate pool isn’t unfairly or unreasonably skewed in a certain direction.”

Though the survey and the unconscious bias workshops are addressed to employees, Irfan believes the entire university community will benefit.

“We want to provide a better experience for people of all identities who come here to work, study or visit. These initiatives help us to ensure that this is an inclusive, welcoming institution.”

The diversity survey and unconscious bias training are two examples of the wide range of diversity and equity initiatives happening at MacEwan. For more information, visit the OHRDE web page.

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