I'm about to board the morning flight from Heathrow to New York and I am reminded of a conversation some months ago with a (female) colleague. She told me of her discomfort - I think she actually said horror - as she was boarding a flight and noticed the pilot was a woman. Female pilots, she told me, make her anxious. Pilots, she continued, should be men, ideally in their 50's with grey hair and a reassuring smile. There is no logic to this presumption and there are no statistics that I can find to support her assertion that male pilots are better, safer or more capable than women. So what is going on and why her horror?
I would hypothesis that she is suffering from Unconscious Bias.
Unconscious Bias describes the opinions we form of people based purely on how they look and/or sound. As the name suggests, these biases are based not on our rational experiences but on our emotional prejudices. Our biases come in all shapes and sizes - for example that tall people are clumsy, fat people are lazy and bald people are super virile (ok I made that last one up).
We all have these biases and they provide a framework for so many of our daily decisions. They are powerful and pernicious in equal measure. Powerful due to their unconscious nature and pernicious because they drive decisions that are at best sub-optimal and at worst laced with unacceptable prejudice and disdain.
I want to focus on the sub-optimal aspects of this decision making and to consider it through a corporate lens. In this corporate context, our unconscious bias is a talent restrictor, something that either repels talent when we meet it or precludes us from meeting it entirely. My industry (like so many) struggles with diversity - the male/female balance is improving but we have made much less progress in areas such as ethnicity, social background and disability. Why? Well surely we know why not? It is not because certain ethnicities or backgrounds are less intelligent, less hard working or less suited to the creative industries than others.
It's partly because despite our best intentions, we inadvertently allow our unconscious biases - or assumptions - to influence our actions and behaviours. And this will undoubtedly affect those we might choose to work with, promote or employ. The consequences of this are pretty obvious and explain why many industries are still struggling to create a workforce that reflects the world at large.
So, in a bid to move the conversation beyond just race and gender in the advertising industry, and encourage our peers to focus on all the differences that make people unique, we'll be challenging the advertising community to "change the face of advertising" at this year's Advertising Week Europe.
We'll be photographing as many delegates as possible and running these images through a facial merging tool to create The Face of Ad Week Europe 2017. We'll be offering attendees the opportunity to participate in the Harvard University's Implicit Association Tests to help bring their unconscious biases to the surface. And we hope that by drawing attention to people's - often inherent - prejudices that we can help to drive change.
Interestingly, the number of women working as pilots across the world is surprisingly low, at just 3%. In a poll of 2,000 women conducted by British Airways, 63% said they were put off when they were growing up for reasons including a lack of visible role models and being told it was a man's job. Clearly my colleague is not alone in her, not so unconscious, bias.
Read more about how you too can Brave Your Bias.