Where issues arise is when these biases are used to assign value to certain characteristics or traits and to base decision making on these biases we might not even be aware of. "We all have biases, it's important to admit and acknowledge that. The problem, though, is that many businesses and managers will say, 'We don't even need to talk about diversity because we're only interested in hiring the best talent,' and then they're ignoring unconscious bias. What they assume is that there's a level playing field for women, for people of color, for economically and socially oppressed groups -- and that means those groups aren't going to be given a fair shake," she says.
Another issue is diversity fatigue, says Stokes, which can help reinforce a culture of silence around these issues. This occurs when members of a dominant group -- say, Caucasian males -- become overwhelmed by the myriad issues of discrimination, unfair treatment and oppression and feel powerless to address them. Diversity fatigue can also affect members of underrepresented groups, though in different ways.
"The culture of silence can lead to a reticence in challenging authority and a replication of the status quo, which doesn't help anyone. People start to think, 'What's the point in fighting these systems? I'll just do my job and go home -- there's no point in challenging any of this. It's not worth the hassle,'" Stokes says. Or, members of a marginalized group may feel it's easier to accept the dominant views of the majority demographic and begin hiding or attempting to cover up their differences in order to fit in -- they go along to get along, she says.
They're called 'unconscious' for a reason
Because these biases are activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control, it can be nearly impossible to address them through traditional diversity training and education, says Stokes.
"Nobody wants to think they're biased, or that they're doing an injustice to anyone, so they aren't willing to examine that -- you can't get to these issues through introspection. That's why they're unconscious biases!" she says.
Making a start to address unconscious bias
Addressing unconscious bias starts with acknowledging and accepting that every single person holds them, without placing blame or shaming individuals. Then, it's important to increase awareness of how these biases affect talent management practices, and to look at business-based outcomes of diversity practices -- how diverse companies are more competitive, how they're better equipped to serve their customers and are increasingly seen as an employer of choice for job seekers.
"We have to look at evidence-based outcomes to affect change. By fostering an understanding of the positive outcomes of diversity talent management efforts, you can overcome diversity fatigue and heighten awareness of the need to change," says Stokes.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.