Things we wished we’d noticed at the time: Tales from the unconscious bias trenches

In an interesting exercise that ended up being as awkward and embarrassing as it was enlightening, our team looked back at some of our past work to review and discover how, in our blissful ignorance, we contributed to a healthy culture of entrenched bias through visual language without skipping a beat. Here’s some of what our legacy work revealed about our past unconscious biases and assumptions about the world, the people in it and how we all live.

Everyone is Anglo Saxon

Whitey McWhite is not the only person on earth. And only a proportion of us hail from white Germanic tribes who inhabited England from the 5th Century. If we are going to accurately reflect the human makeup of any modern classroom, movie theatre, church, football stadium, workplace, pop concert or shopping centre, it is absolutely not going to be accurate if it’s a bunch of white people from Anglo Saxon background. Despite this, too often we still see representation inferring the only people who attend class, go to the movies, worship, play sport, go to work, see Bieber in concert or shop are Anglo Saxon.

Doing Business means wearing a necktie

As visual storytellers this is one of the most obvious and prevalent examples of unconscious bias still doing the rounds today in various guises. The go-to way of representing business is through an icon of a male toilet block character wearing a necktie. STILL.

All family units are nuclear

Because everyone we know has a family unit made up of woman who marries a man and together they raise a boy and a girl. The girl wears pink dresses and nurtures her dolls. The boy wears blue shorts and constructs buildings with his Lego. They grow up. Rinse and repeat. Perhaps this view does represent a portion of family models, but it is no longer the only way to represent a family. Permutations of this stereotype are flourishing – and by choosing to visualise what is now an ‘old-world’ view of family we are perpetuating a narrow concept hardly representative of a modern society.

Doctors are male, nurses are female and no one wears scrubs.

Ever stop to ask why it’s always a male doctor giving orders to a female nurse? Whether it’s the illustrations or icons – it’s the male who gets to wear the all-powerful stethoscope or white lab coat. The woman wears an old-fashioned not seen since the 50s little hat emblazoned with a red cross on the top of her head, and always takes your temperature then calls the doctor. If you ever find yourself unlucky enough to wind up in an emergency department of a large hospital, you’ll see that no one actually dresses like that. It’s time to lift our heads and reflect what we see in emergency rooms and hospitals everywhere – increased gender diversity among nurses and doctors – and none of them wearing the little hat or matron-like outfit.

Smart and powerful women wear high heels

Do women really need to squash their feet into six-inch heels eight hours a day increasing the likelihood of a bunion-riddled future to present as powerful? Granted, some business professionals wear high heels – but to keep pushing that as a key driver of power and success is painting a pretty one-dimensional portrait of professional women in the modern world.

 Eyewear represents intelligence

Does wearing glasses really signify intelligence? Realistically, it should indicate problematic eyesight which has absolutely nothing to do with smarts. How will we signify a character is smart/nerdy/computer literate/poor at sports/scholarly? I know! Let’s put them in glasses!! This has to be the most ridiculous bias constantly perpetrated in design, illustration, animation and film.

 Yep – we’re the problem and the solution

This exercise was initially prompted by our reading of Caroline Criado Perez’s smart and data-heavy book, Invisible Women, that explores data bias in a world essentially designed and built by men. It may have started there, but it ended up capturing a lot more than that (although gender bias along with racial bias remain massive, deeply entrenched issues). We realised that our biases come mostly from our own experiences in the world, no matter how big or small. They also come from being a passive participant in affirming unconscious biases by not actually recognising them – it’s simply a matter of what we know, and from a design perspective, it’s often the easiest (and first) thought or reaction we have. While that is the root of the problem, it can also be the solution. If we have a diverse representation of people in our workplace, and seek out their opinions and feedback, then those lived experiences will yield very different results to our own world view. Tapping into that incredible resource of human experience is critical to calling unconscious bias out – and getting it right. And that’s better for everyone, everywhere.

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