Profession Bias | Kamau Consulting Group

Profession Bias | Kamau Consulting Group

About a year ago, a colleague invited me into a bidding opportunity at a large food processing organization. The opportunity here was to provide Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) consulting services as they undertook their strategic ten-year plan. The Leadership team insisted that they preferred someone with experience in the food processing industry which neither of us had. I was taken aback by this request as I couldn’t connect the relationship between the scope of the bidding opportunity and the experience within the industry. Nevertheless, we challenged this request, but they insisted. We scoured our networks and could not find anyone with that type of industry experience and so we both decided to move on. Fast forward four months after this situation, another consulting partner that I had worked with reached out on an opportunity. Turned out that it was the same food processing organization and had hired a friend to this consulting partner to take the initiative on. This consultant had some previous contracting experience in another scope within the food processing industry and required my expertise. Unfortunately, I had to turn this opportunity down as I was out of capacity.

Having worked with various Professionals across multiple industries now, I’ve noticed that these experiences are more common-place than we can imagine and happen everyday across various industries and organizations. This phenomenon of conditioning brought about by the elements or aspects of one’s profession or industry is one I believe warrants some unpacking and will term `Profession Bias’. To note, there are some articles out there that have explored “Professional Bias”. As a point of distinction, they all cover attributes of the individual and I’m yet to see one that explores the profession as a discipline and the complexity of resulting interactions. In a previous article, Bias-Aware Leadership, I explore how bias is an inherent part of human cognition. It would be naive of us to believe or think that our professions are purely objective in their approaches or discipline as they are designed by humans. Given how complex systemic oppression is ingrained in our societies, I would argue that every single discipline or profession warrants an ongoing review to understand how it may or may not be biased in its approach. I would also like to highlight that Profession bias can be a result of two interactions, 1. The conditioning created as a result of the discipline within the profession and 2. The conditioning created as a result of Professionals interacting within their fields or industry. These two interactions are equally harmful to both the Clients the Professionals serve and Society as a whole. Here are a few signs that you may be contending with Profession bias;

Reluctant to challenge your discipline or profession

Many of us got into our Professions for various reasons. Love it or hate it, my hope is that it was out of your own volition. Nevertheless, I recognize there are countless out there who are working in various professions forced by certain situations. I recall having a great conversation several months ago with a psychologist who I consider a great friend and colleague. We happened to be working on a project together where I challenged analyzing the possibility of how biased a decision he made may have been. He took offense to my challenge and emphasized that his profession was in the business of evaluating biases. We had a lengthy discussion about this, and he remained reluctant to challenge how an approach in his profession may have been biased. There are countless professionals who have never had a chance to review how biased their disciplines may be let alone question it. The view that one is professional does not displace the inherent bias in people, theory or systems. Professional and bias are not mutually exclusive and the sooner we accept our inherence to bias, the sooner we can interrupt it and minimize it. I’m glad to share that my friend eventually came around into recognizing this bias.

Every profession has some level of emphasis on a certain approach. An over-emphasis sometimes can deny us the opportunities to see the alternative or resulting impact. At present, most professions or disciplines lack a formal educational forum for them to examine their roles within the complexity of inequities and implicit biases at play. I am yet to come across a single profession or discipline that is not contending with some level of implicit biases whether that be in the actual theory or in practice. There is no profession that is immune to biases. Creating equitable systems requires everyone’s participation and attention. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in this work and all approaches are valid as they allow us to check our biases. We all need to challenge our disciplines, critique the approaches (whether ascribed or prescribed) and strive to ensure that we are not further marginalizing anyone through our professions.

Inability to recognize bias

Some professionals like to tout meritocracy. Within meritocracy, we assume that those unwritten rules of objectivity are culture-neutral, which is largely never the case as the dominant group within the meritocracy simply influences the culture and sets the performance yard stick. Building up on the reluctance to challenge the discipline, some professionals view bias and profession as mutually exclusive and unfortunately, are unable to recognize and in turn address bias. I was speaking to an executive a few months ago who had a difficult time buying the fact that the hiring practices at his organization were highly biased. This executive was convinced that they had put up a great system in place to minimize bias in their hiring process and yet had a poor representation of people to reflect the markets they served. When I asked for a review of the hiring team and process, he was reluctant and insisted on qualification requirements for the hiring team. He brought up a good question which allowed me to put things in context when he asked how is it that so many people could be so biased. When I said to him that everyone is biased, he took a long pause to reflect on my statement and eventually came around to understanding bias within the context of a profession. This is not exceptional to one industry as it happens everywhere across various professions.

Over-confidence in bias-awareness

Some industries and professionals by design are largely exposed to the social inequities which can lead them to being overly confident in their bias-awareness. The moment a professional becomes overly confident in their bias-awareness, the easier they succumb to their own profession and implicit biases. I’m reminded of a forum we held several months ago with Social Service Professionals, KCG Forums. The panelists raised an important point when they mentioned that it can be very difficult to resolve biases within Social Work as the assumption is that most people within the profession are largely aware and in turn, are more reluctant to check their own biases.

Profession on a pedestal

There are countless professions out there. I would like to consider that every profession has a part to play and certainly appreciate every craft, thoughts, perspectives, experiences, expertise etc, that everyone brings to the table. There is nothing wrong with loving your profession or what you do but we certainly lose ourselves the moment we consider our professions to be more relevant than others. This could be as a result of the nature of profession or discipline or how professionals within the profession or industry interact with each other, their clients and society. While I recognize that some of these pedestals are woven into institutional structures of oppression, I do believe that professionals have a responsibility to recognize these inequities and disrupt them. I’m reminded of this gentleman I worked with at this organization. A lawyer by profession, this gentleman was in charge of labour relations. He had trouble understanding how discrimination was prevalent at the organization while all cases reported (according to him) had not violated any part of the workplace policy or labour agreement. When I challenged him on how he felt about the current policy, his response was that it didn’t’ matter how he felt about the policy and that he could not find any violation to the policy. He was quick to remind me about his job, “I interpret the policy as is written and render a decision based purely on those merits. Feelings are left up to policy analysts and clearly, I have none and it’s way below my pay grade”. I am in no way suggesting that this is prevalent behaviour by lawyers. This behaviour happens across many professions.

Overly collaborative

Collaboration encourages cohesiveness and helps support building of synergies across teams. There is this desire but then there is being `overly-collaborative’. In a complex system and world full of biases, it should be concerning when everyone turns into a `yes’ person. A free flow of ideas and expressions should lead to a place of contradiction and fair constructive criticism. Many at times, professionals fall into the trap of groupthink and desire to be in agreement with others within their teams or professions. This discourages the open exchange and free flow of thoughts and ideas in the process limiting the ability to check our biases. The moment we observe this behaviour, we should do our very best to encourage the free flow of ideas and expression in order to continually minimize our biases. 

Industry or profession experience requirements

You will find that a considerable number of organizations are always seeking industry-specific experience in their hiring practices. While this may appear helpful in some roles, I would question the long-term benefits or relevance to industry-specific experience. While it’s easier to recruit someone with industry-specific experience, how are we strategically addressing the possibility of profession bias through their hiring? This approach generally limits the opportunity of seeing beyond the “industry horizon”. There is incredible opportunity in bringing vast experiences together at an organization. The more experiences a professional has across various industries, the more they get to appreciate the vast opportunities and expertise of various professions out there limiting profession biases. I would even go further and consider professionals with multi-disciplines. I can only imagine a world where it was common-place for a police officer to have a social work background or a university professor who also happens to be an executive at an organization. 

Code language

Various professions use code languages in their communication. While this may appear innocent, it unfortunately creates an “us vs them” environment or affinity groups. Professionals are constantly trying to find solutions with their peers and not all answers can be found within. The use of code language at the IT department is not going to help a user at the Finance department in articulating the cost of fixing the technical challenge. Professionals lose the opportunity to develop solutions that may be available outside of the affinity group and most importantly, everyone loses the opportunity to understand the person behind the profession. Organizations and disciplines alike should discourage the use of code language in their spaces if they are to promote environments that disrupt profession biases.

This is by no means the exhaustive list of signs that one is contending with Profession bias. There are certainly many more signs to consider out there. I’m hoping that you at least find it helpful enough to start addressing some of those you may identify with within your profession or industry.

Author: Kevin Kamau, is the Founder and President of Kamau Consulting Group, a Management Consulting Firm focused on creating opportunities for inclusive participation through Inclusive Leadership

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