Breaking Patterns: The Problem With Unconscious Bias In The Middle East's Workplaces (And How To Manage It)

In the Middle East, unconscious assumptions and biases have developed through centuries-old traditions built principally on faith and laws, and their impact on society and family life.

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In 2019, Dr. Tasha Stanton, Associate Professor of Clinical Pain Neuroscience at the University of Southern Australia, found herself talking to a male delegate at an Australian Physiotherapy Association Conference. When he learned about her area of interest, he recommended that she read a paper by Stanton et al. That paper was, of course, her own. He had made an assumption that a woman couldn’t be the author.

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Stanton tweeted about the incident, explaining that they had been able to laugh about the mistake once this person got over his shock and discomfort. But she also made the point that it was important to call this out, even though she realised there was no bad intention in the comment. Stanton went on to say that it often happens to women, particularly in academia, and people won’t learn if situations like these aren’t challenged. Her post was retweeted more than 16,000 times.

Reactions like these, made in the moment, are often the result of unconscious or implicit biases that are built into us through societal influences as we develop from children into adults. These influences come from our family life, friendship circles, education, faith, and how we observe behaviours in others. Many of these influences are nuanced: mannerisms, body language, eye contact, tone of voice. Some cause us to have biases against something, some lead to bias in favour of something. In addition, the culture into which we are born will have inherent biases of its own.

In the Middle East, culture and tradition run deep into the fabric of the region. Unconscious assumptions and biases have developed through centuries-old traditions built principally on faith and laws, and their impact on society and family life. Having worked internationally with a wide variety of global and multicultural organisations, the impact of these traditions holds true in the Middle East in a different and profound way, and this is borne out through my consultancy work in the region and my research over several years.

In 2020, Annabel Harper published her first book, Shujaa’ah: Bold Leadership for Women of the Middle East, which was a finalist in the Business Book Awards 2021. Source: Annabel Harper

The significant difference is connected to the expectations of girls and boys growing up, and the assumptions that develop about the roles they take on as adults. This is why understanding and raising awareness of unconscious bias in the Middle East can be challenging. We are not born with biases, but by the time we reach adulthood, they are firmly hardwired. We all have them, and they help us to make decisions based on previous experiences and memories.

Unlike explicit biases, which we knowingly state as preferences, unconscious biases are implicit and beyond our awareness. The ability to sort and categorize is crucial to our survival. Our brains are very clever. The brain looks for patterns, and when they emerge, our neural pathways start binding them together, which means that whenever we come across the same pattern in the future, we make the same assumptions, and draw the same conclusions. We need this unconscious library to help us function in the world.

When we meet people, our unconscious self makes assumptions about them. It’s called social categorization, and it affects our behaviours towards them. The tricky aspect of this unconscious thinking, which is quick and automatic, is that it can lead to incorrect assumptions and judgments. Renowned psychologist and economist Professor Daniel Kahneman describes this as System 1 thinking. On the other hand, System 2 thinking, as Kahneman puts it, is more measured and logical. This is the thinking we need to access when we want to manage assumptions and biases.

HOW IMPLICIT BIAS SHOWS UP AT WORK: OUR UNCONSCIOUS LIBRARY

Biases are often grouped into categories, and the ones that seem to show up the most at work are affinity bias, confirmation bias, attribution bias, comparison bias, halo bias, and reverse-halo bias.

1. Affinity bias In the same way that much of your social circle will include people similar to you, you are likely to gravitate towards people like you at work. This can become problematic if you are making hiring decisions. In an interview, are you making your decisions based on the candidate’s similarity to you, or on whether they are the best fit for the job?

2. Confirmation bias We risk categorizing people according to our existing unconscious library, and make decisions based purely on how people look, speak, their cultural background, their age, their gender. We don’t see who they really are.

3. Attribution bias This sometimes shows itself in a self-serving way: “I didn’t get that promotion, because that manager has always had it in for me,” when, in fact, it might have been because the candidate was not yet ready for promotion.

4. Comparison bias In the Middle East, status is highly significant. At work, this kind of bias means that we sometimes feel negatively towards our peers if we think they’re doing better than us or earning more than us.

5. Halo bias If we think a person is sociable and kind, we will often think they are clever as well- even if they are not!

6. Reverse-halo bias In contrast to the Halo bias, this kind may be based on just one perceived negative trait of a person which then colours all of the perceptions about them, even if they’re not justified. 

A few years ago, I was contracted to work with the all-male senior leadership team of a large ‘Magic Circle’ law firm in London. The culture of the firm was quite formal, and I had chosen to wear a dark business suit to a meeting to discuss a proposed leadership development program, which would include unconscious bias training. I was first to arrive, and I was joined a few minutes later by a member of the senior team.

With no introduction, he asked me to pour him a coffee. I introduced myself, and said I’d be happy to oblige. Embarrassed and apologetic, he explained he had “assumed” I was part of the hospitality team.Unconsciously, he’d made this assumption based on my gender, and what I was wearing. This still happens to many women when they are the only female in the room. And even if there are several women in a meeting, one of them will frequently be asked to take notes, and probably also arrange the next meeting.

The issue for women in the Middle East is that they will sometimes accept these requests, because they’re hard-wired to do so. They are brought up to be the nurturers, and put others first. It’s not easy for men either. They are hardwired to expect women to do this. Men grow up with the expectation that they will be the breadwinners and providers. Many senior leadership roles are held by men, some of whom have been in post for a long time, and those with a more traditional mindset often have an implicit bias against women working. This can also present problems when younger women are promoted over their male colleagues and become their line managers. 

WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE

When unconscious bias is allowed to persist, it becomes embedded in the culture. It doesn’t stay static. On the contrary, it grows and spreads toxicity and lack of respect. Companies are also missing out on the great strengths that a diverse and inclusive workforce brings in terms of performance, innovation, and wellbeing of staff. Being open and honest about what needs to change creates psychological safety– a sense of belonging.

In order to really make a difference, any behavior associated with unconscious bias should be called out and challenged each and every time it occurs. The difficulty is that it’s not always very obvious and usually not intentional. Words and phrases can seem quite innocuous, when in fact they’re actually a subtle put-down or a back-handed compliment. They are often referred to as micro-aggressions.

These examples have been said to some of my female clients in the Middle East by male colleagues or line managers:

“That presentation you gave at the meeting was surprisingly good and informative.”

CODE I didn’t think you, as a female, would be able to manage that level of understanding.

FACT My client wrote the presentation, and she was the subject matter expert.

“Your comments about the financials sounded like you really understood them.”

CODE You managed to do this even though you’re not a finance expert like me.

FACT My client was an experienced auditor and more senior than the person who made the remark.

►“You are quite articulate when you’re talking.”

CODE As a man, I expect to have the final say, you aren’t recognizing my status, so I’m not going to take any notice of what you’re saying.

FACT My client was challenging her colleague’s solution to a problem that she felt lacked some detail. She was proved right, but she still didn’t get the credit.

►“I didn’t tell you about that job opening, because I didn’t think you’d be interested”

CODE You’ve just got married, and there’s no point in promoting you, because you’ll want to leave the organization to start a family.

FACT Even though she had recently married and did want to have children, my client had every intention to continue her career alongside a family.

Even people in the public eye with a young family aren’t immune to this kind of thinking. When actress Keira Knightley was asked by a female journalist at a 2020 awards ceremony how she balanced her career and personal life, Knightley deftly turned the question around and asked the journalist if she was also planning to pose the question to all the men attending the event.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put back many of the advances in global gender equality. Latest figures from the World Economic Forum show it will take more than 135 years to close the gender gap globally based on current trends, and more than 142 years in Middle East and North Africa. In spite of this, my research in 2020 shows that women are more determined than ever to move on in their careers, and push even harder for organizations to be more diverse and inclusive. Rooting out unconscious bias will accelerate the process. Unconscious bias training is important for all employees, but on its own, it is not enough.

It should not be a tick-box or sheep-dip exercise. The aim is not to fix a problem, or have diversity and inclusion as an add-on. Rather, it should be part of a systemic overhaul, and the heartbeat of the organization. Critically, it has to be championed at leadership level, openly and publicly supported. If companies don’t address this, they won’t attract fresh talent, and they’ll lose talented people whose values are not being met. Respecting people’s diverse perspectives and opinions is a powerful and positive resource to create a connected and collaborative organization, which can innovate, adapt, and positively transform, not just during the pandemic, but beyond it. 

Annabel Harper

Written By

Annabel Harper is a Middle East specialist, experienced international leadership coach, facilitator, and published author. With over three decades of experience, she has worked with senior executives from a wide variety of industries across the public and private sectors.

In 2020, she published her first book, Shujaa’ah: Bold Leadership for Women of the Middle East, which was a finalist in the Business Book Awards 2021. Shujaa’ah explores the meaning of leadership in general, and for women in the Arab world more specifically. In addition to her coaching work, Annabel is lead coach on a number of leadership programs at London Business School, including the Executive MBA in Dubai.

She is also a tutor for Cambridge University’s Diploma in Coaching. Prior to founding her coaching business, Annabel was a senior broadcast journalist in the UK, before moving into management at the BBC. Annabel holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from King’s College, University of London, an MA in Coaching and Mentoring Practice from Oxford Brookes University, and a Diploma in the Neuroscience of Leadership.