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'They were totally unaware': How unconscious bias can be as hurtful as outright discrimination

Be sensitive to your own unconsidered assumptions, writes Sheena Madden. It could go a long way.

Image: Unsplash

WE LIVE IN a rapidly-changing Ireland. Gay marriage is legal, the abortion rights campaign regularly makes international headlines, public service organisations are being called out for unacceptable gender pay gaps, we now have a truly multicultural populace.

Diversity, something that once had an air of ‘buzzword’ about it, has arrived, and workplaces are taking it seriously.

Thankfully, many managers can see the benefits that come from having staff from different backgrounds, who have experienced the world in different ways and can provide alternative perspectives.

There are, of course, still some companies stuck in the 1950s in terms of their policies and attitudes. Some of the resistance to embracing diversity and treating all people equally can be attributed to a backlash against ‘political correctness’. How many times have you heard someone use the phrase ‘PC gone mad’ or refer to people who take offence as ‘snowflakes’?

Lewd and inappropriate

I used to work with a man who had been with the company since the 1970s. I lost count of the amount of lewd, inappropriate comments he made in my company, both to me and to other people. They weren’t always sexual in nature – but sometimes they were – and it was all laughed at and viewed in a very ‘Carry On’ light. It seemed everyone knew about this man’s conduct but he had never (at least to my knowledge) been formally accused of harassing anyone. It was a case of, ‘Oh, that’s just how he is.’

These subtle examples can be experienced across all industries. Shaun, who works in theatre as a writer and actor – an industry supposedly renowned for its culture of inclusivity – told TheJournal.ie about some of the subtle examples of discrimination he has experienced as a gay man.

“I have definitely experienced problems that relate to my sexual orientation, although sometimes they’ve been subtle or unintentional,” Shaun says. “I’ll never forget one day I was having a conversation with a director and she was asking me about a certain actor’s abilities; if I thought he was a good actor. I said yes, I think he’s good, he’s an interesting chap. And then she asked me if he was ‘gay on the stage’.

“In that question, she was asking me if he was ‘clockably’ gay when he’s acting. Without meaning to, she was addressing the fact that a lot of people find it hard to imagine gay people playing straight roles. She was asking me about that, really, but in a kind of roundabout way.

Source: Unsplash

“On some level it’s a reasonable question. On another level, you need to give the person the benefit of the doubt and bring them in for an audition without asking people questions like ‘is he gay on the stage?’. If you’re asking me that, as a gay man who is often in audition rooms myself, you’re in turn making me feel very self-concious.

“It makes me wonder what I have to do to make that question irrelevant. Do I have to act more masculine? Do I have to be less who I am? Because ultimately, if being ‘gay on the stage’ is a concern, we’re obviously being written out of roles from the offset.”

So here’s another buzz-phrase of the-moment: unconscious bias. Shaun says that, on another occasion, he was working for a short time with a London-based advertising agency when he experienced the casual dismissal of potential employees or contractors, in this case actors, because of their sexual orientation, and how that made them come across.

‘Too gay, too gay’

“We were casting for a series of online videos and it was supposed to be about a person who didn’t know anything about a certain sport. They were going through known names in comedy because they wanted the person for this role to be funny. I suggested a few names for the part, and it just so happened that a lot of my suggestions were gay. The response I got from the team was, ‘too gay, too gay, too gay’.

“I’m not saying that these people were raging homophobes, but they were speaking about gay people in a way that was inappropriate, and eliminating people from a process on the basis of them being gay. They were totally unaware of how offensive they were being,” says Shaun.

Ireland does have fairly robust anti-discrimination legislation. In terms of discrimination in the workplace or at recruitment stage, the Employment Equality Acts protect people under nine specific grounds of discrimination; the Equal Status Acts 2000-2015 offers protection under the same nine grounds to try to ensure people are treated equally when they access goods and services.

Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, told us, “Discrimination in the workplace can happen when an employer, workmate, or a company treat a person less favourably than another, because of who they are. As a Commission we are seeing people coming forward, and contacting us to seek information, and to challenge discrimination whether they encounter it in the workplace or in their day-to-day lives.”

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In its most recent Annual Report to the Oireachtas, IHREC highlighted that the majority of people contacting its service last year, under the Employment Equality Acts, were raising employment discrimination issues on the specific grounds of disability, family status and race.

Many companies will have a clear path to complaints through their human resources departments or other nominated contacts. Some, however, don’t make their policies and procedures quite so clear. In the case of the latter, Logan recommends that people who have grievances contact the Commission.

In Shaun’s industry, and in fact as the gig industry continues to be a popular model, there isn’t always a clear path to complaining about discrimination. “The way theatre tends to work is on a project-by-project basis,” says Shaun, “So there tends to be a bit of a revolving door. You don’t have the same infrastructure around you that a regular company might have. You don’t usually have a HR team, a managing director… so it’s not as clear-cut.

“Recently in my own career I’ve started working with some really good producers whose job it is to look after those things. But because in the independent sector there isn’t as much routine, when routine isn’t established it can be hard to find your feet when a grievance suddenly happens.”

Shaun now considers himself lucky because he works in a way which allows him to assemble the team around him and create the working space.

“I try to create a culture where people feel very supported and welcome and I think that’s informed by the fact that I have had those experiences,” he says. “I think when it comes to people disrespecting others because of their sexual orientation, or any other reason, it’s important to note that it affects other people too – the people who have to hear it who maybe aren’t gay, or aren’t in that marginalised group. It creates an energy that is disruptive for everyone.”

More: 10 must-haves to make it in a modern workplace, according to Owen Cullen>

‘Diversity equals innovation’: Why these Irish workplaces are blazing a trail for inclusiveness>

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