Mirèze Philippe On Unconscious Bias

We spoke to Mirèze Philippe, founding co-president and board member of ArbitralWomen, on the challenges of recognising and combating unconscious bias, and ArbitralWomen’s work in that area.

1. What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a form of social categorisation, whereby we rapidly and routinely sort people into groups. Our unconscious mind is what allows us (i) to quickly process everything going on around us, (ii) decide which information to focus on, (iii) make inferences and assumptions, and (iv) feel attracted to some people but not others based on our emotions.

In other words, we do not see our world as it really is, we see it the way our bias allows us to see it.

Human beings are organised in social, cultural, professional groups of various types. They need to belong to a group, to identify themselves with types of groups which they either grew in or they have adopted. They become members of such groups or communities, and they need to be recognised by such groups or communities. Members of a group adopt in general the position of the group, rightly or wrongfully, thus creating biased situations. Any newcomer in a community is usually not welcome and may be isolated. We adopt stereotypes and put individuals in boxes. What then happens naturally is that any person who does not belong to our groups or to groups we recognise and respect becomes an individual or a group that we subconsciously – sometimes consciously – reject.

Stereotypes are formed outside of our own conscious awareness, and are generated by all sorts of external factors, including what the media convey to us. We are taught to learn things in a certain way. We are all busy and we are multitasking. When we are moving fast or lack all necessary data to form an opinion, our unconscious biases fill in the gaps, influencing everything.

Zillions of situations have been previously recorded somewhere in the back of our mind. We receive  approximately 11 million bits of information from our environment every second – just thinking about it makes me dizzy! But we have not willingly clicked on the record button. It was done automatically.

2. How does one become conscious of their own unconscious biases?

It is difficult to become aware of your own biases if you do not take a test or if someone does not tell you that you are biased. I first heard about biases in around 2014 when I read Edna Sussman’s excellent article about arbitrator decision-making. Then I learned about the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in 2015. Since then I have read a lot on overcoming biases.

According to statistics from the IAT, very few people, if any, are totally without prejudice of one form or another. Many IAT tests exist on YouTube to check for all types of biases. Anyone taking such tests is surprised by the outcome. Unconscious bias is universal, and we would be naïve to think that bias does not affect our decision-making process, whether in our private or professional life. Every human being has natural inclinations, generated by the environment and the background that inhibits impartial judgment, and influences unfair or unjustified decisions. According to Horace McCormick there are more than 150 identified unconscious biases.

Unconscious bias can also be fought at an organisational level. By arranging presentations and trainings at any possible opportunity, at conferences, in firms, organisations, universities, to raise awareness about unconscious biases and train people to overcome them. Firms should hire more and more psychologists to work with their staff on this. These training sessions should take place regularly, at least once every two years, but training alone is not sufficient. We need to take regular tests to verify where we stand with our biases, as well as having regular discussions in small groups within a firm on the topic. This applies to everyone, not only among dispute resolution (DR) practitioners.

3. What are the major obstacles that prevent unconscious bias training from becoming more inclusive of new groups and issues?

I think as a society we are getting more and more aware of biases and trying to include underrepresented groups in the discussion, especially groups whose voices are not often heard or those who face discrimination, e.g. due to their gender, age or ethnicity. However, there remains much work to be done, and depending on the time and place and prevailing social customs trying to combat unconscious bias, advocating for human rights or equality and freedom from discrimination in general can be difficult, if not outright dangerous. Malala Yousafzai is a living example of the price advocates of equality may have to pay for their courageous efforts. More training on unconscious bias and on human rights is necessary around the world and there is still a lot that needs to be developed in this field.

4. How has ArbitralWomen tried to address the issue of unconscious bias? 

The first time I organised a panel to address unconscious bias with ArbitralWomen was in Miami in 2015. It was so successful that we replicated the format on a regular basis around the world. ArbitralWomen board members and ArbitralWomen members organised panels to raise awareness mainly about gender biases. We continue making presentations everywhere we are invited.

In November 2018 we launched in New York the ArbitralWomen Diversity ToolkitTM. Discussing gender diversity and unconscious biases resonate with the objective of ArbitralWomen, because the network was founded precisely to counter the effects of discrimination against women who are practitioners in DR, and to promote such practitioners.  

For equal qualifications women should be offered equal opportunities, as clearly explained by the Equal Representation in Arbitration pledge, which we closely cooperate with. We also liaise with other groups who share the same objectives, such as GQUAL.

Equal treatment is not only a human rights issue, it is also a business issue. Diversity forms part of business strategies and generates significant benefits. Society is losing talent if opportunities are not offered to all.

Interview by Zoheb Mashiur.

In addition to being founding co-president of ArbitralWomen, Mirèze Philippe, is Special Counsel at the ICC International Court of Arbitration.

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