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Unconscious bias in graduate recruitment

Joshua Oware FRSA, December 2014

Rare’s aim

  • There are many reports and initiatives on unconscious bias. We wanted a new approach that draws on our unique access to young, high achieving, yet under-represented, students in ways that can actively improve the recruitment process.

The essay collection

  • Part one: covers the emergence of Rare’s concern with unconscious bias and the theoretical and empirical background to unconscious decision-making.
  • Part two: examines the idea of background and draws together Rare’s thinking on Bourdieusian capital, the series of filmed interviews we conducted during 2014 and our developing understanding of the unconscious.
  • Part three: asks the question of ‘what are we looking for?’ and analyses the recent, and under-researched, emergence of video interviews.

Research summary

  • Desk research: extensive interdisciplinary literature review covering over 30 years of academic research, popular scientific non-fiction, lectures, recordings and research-led projects by organisations, in the UK and abroad, such as the Equality Challenge Unit and Project Implicit®.
  • Interviews: hours of filmed encounters with Rare candidates aged 18 to 24, examined using two to three cameras that captured individual speakers and the space of their interaction.
  • Key research questions: (A) what are unconscious biases? (B) How can we connect unconscious bias to social mobility? (C) How might we develop our three categories of ‘capital’ (social, cultural and economic) to better understand unconscious interactions during the recruitment process?

The social, political and economic context

  • Unconscious bias: occurs when a human being performing an action, and/or making a decision, is guided by an association, attitude or illusion of which she is not conscious.
  • Background: the pioneering work on unconscious bias emerged, most recently, inside the USA. In particular, the work of Kahneman and Tversky (the creation of behavioural economics) and that of Greenwald and Banaji (stereotype biases) in the 70s, 80s and 90s has established unconscious bias as part of the social lexicon.
  • UK: much of the work in the UK borrows from the American context. There are relatively few interventions that emerge clearly from a British cultural, social and political context.
  • Status quo: with the financial crash, and changing understandings of discrimination, unconscious bias has positioned itself as the next frontier for social justice engagements – from business to everyday life.

What we learned

  • The research on the unconscious is clear: we are all susceptible to a multitude of so-called unconscious biases; these biases are hardwired into our neural circuitry and exhibited in all of our everyday actions.
  • Capital: a person’s economic, social and cultural capital is not only relevant to how they appear on paper (as with last year’s research) but how they appear in person – especially, the extra-discursive dimensions of their presence – how often might we produce evaluative phrases such as: ‘she was very warm and personable’, for example?
  • Cultural literacy: there exists a cultural, linguistic and social canon. This canon is, by its very nature, ‘the way things get done’. It is a metalanguage that enables social and business interaction. Not having access to, or experience of, this canon may place individuals at unfair, largely unconscious, disadvantages.
  • Recruitment process: a blend of blind and contextualised stages will offer the most realistic and egalitarian recruitment process. We must control the information in the system: the best systems are both hyper-contextualised and blind.
  • ‘It’: we questioned what judgements are being made in an interview and how they might betray their conscious aim. When a particular candidate impresses us, when that candidate has ‘it’, what is ‘it’ and how might it informed by biases – feelings of warmth, comfort and familiarity, for example? These essays collectively attempt to describe ‘it’.

Outcomes / recommendations

  • There are two chapters that follow the series of essays: Rare recommends, a series of eight recommendations that arise directly from the research; and Rare’s Five Big Ideas for 2015, five projects, materials and devices being developed to address unconscious bias in 2015 and beyond.


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