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In a world teeming with diversity and interconnectivity, the topic of unconscious bias has never been more relevant. SheSight had the privilege of sitting down with the remarkable Smita Tharoor, a seasoned professional in organizational development, TEDx speaker, and founder of Tharoor Associates and Culturelytics. But what truly sets Smita apart is her unwavering passion for exploring the depths of unconscious bias, a subject she delves into through her podcast series, “Stories Seldom Told”.

During an engaging conversation between Dr. Chandra Vadhana, the CEO of SheSight, and Ms. Smita Tharoor, we uncover the essence of unconscious bias, its impact on the workplace, cross-cultural perspectives, and the influence of media, movies, and family upbringing. We also touch on leadership, self-love, and Smita’s commitment to challenging biases worldwide.

A Shift from Negativity to Preference

Let’s begin our journey by understanding the very core of unconscious bias. Smita Tharoor, with her gift of clarity, simplifies it for us. She points out that the term “bias” often carries a negative connotation, but in reality, it simply signifies a preference for or against something. Now, let’s add “unconscious” to the mix – it means “I don’t know.” In other words, unconscious bias is having a preference without conscious awareness. It’s as simple as reaching for a green blouse without consciously thinking about it.

Smita beautifully illustrates this concept with an everyday scenario – shopping for a blouse. Your hand naturally gravitates towards a green one, reflecting an unconscious preference. But when you pause to assess the material, size, and style before making your choice, it becomes a conscious bias. This leads us to the intriguing idea of changing biases, be they positive or negative. Smita shares a poignant story from a women’s conference in Philadelphia. A woman of Italian origin, raised in a male-dominated household where her voice went unheard, found herself hesitating to speak up in office meetings. Her unconscious bias, rooted in her upbringing, was impeding her professional growth.

Smita emphasizes that dismantling unconscious biases requires reflection. For instance, in recruitment, it’s crucial to scrutinize whether decisions are genuinely based on merit or influenced by unconscious biases. The key is to ensure fairness in outcomes. Addressing biases is a multi-layered process, but it all begins with awareness and reflection.

In the Workplace: Their Impact and Origins

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Unconscious biases are deeply rooted in our psyche, often stemming from societal conditioning and personal experiences. Smita delves candidly into how these biases manifest in the workplace and their origins and consequences. She acknowledges that biases can emerge based on gender or ethnicity, adversely affecting hiring decisions. The solution? Introspection and self-awareness. Individuals should regularly evaluate their decisions, questioning if biases play a role. Smita talks about regional biases, demonstrating how unconscious biases can affect even the most rational decisions.

The conversation also touches on biases as defense mechanisms. We often make snap judgments to protect ourselves. However, imposing our bias-challenging journey on others is cautioned against, recognizing that personal trauma can significantly influence biases.

Specific cognitive biases like availability bias and confirmation bias are explored. The former leads to erroneous assumptions due to limited information, while the latter involves seeking evidence that aligns with preconceived notions. These biases can play out in workplace situations, such as challenging appraisals, where managers may struggle with certain employees and only hear what confirms their existing beliefs.

Cross-Cultural Bias: A Universal Challenge

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Now, let’s explore the intriguing realm of unconscious bias from a cross-cultural perspective. Smita and her interviewer stress that while minor cultural nuances may exist, biases are fundamentally ingrained in human nature and persist worldwide.

The conversation begins by illustrating how unconscious bias often rears its head in close relationships. People tend to jump to conclusions based on preconceived notions. Confirmation bias, where individuals hear what they want to hear, is a common example.

The discussion moves on to anchor bias, drawing parallels between the anchors that ships drop to stay secure and how managers use this bias to influence their teams. A study by Daniel Kahneman is referenced, demonstrating how anchoring numbers can manipulate decision-making.

As the conversation expands to the global stage, the speakers ponder whether cultural differences affect biases. They concur that while minor cultural variations may exist, fundamental biases, especially regarding gender and patriarchy, remain consistent worldwide. The discussion concludes by underscoring the power of unconscious bias and its impact on decision-making. It’s crucial to evaluate outcomes for fairness.

This thought-provoking conversation reaffirms the universality of unconscious bias and the need to address it in various cultural contexts.

Media, Movies, and Family Influences

Shifting gears, we delve into the profound impact of media, movies, and family upbringing on shaping attitudes and biases related to gender, caste, and more. We begin by discussing movies like “Rocky or Rani ka Prem Kahani” and “Barbie”, highlighting how they challenge stereotypes. The conversation navigates the complexities of addressing gender issues and the pitfalls of cancel culture. Smita and her interviewer Dr. Chandra stress the need for a more inclusive and accepting approach rather than extreme views. They emphasize the importance of nurturing the next generation to be respectful and equal.

The conversation takes a personal turn, with Smita sharing a childhood story about their parents’ inclusive and non-judgmental upbringing. This environment, free from the emphasis on caste, religion, or gender biases, significantly influenced their perspective and career choices. This story underscores the importance of breaking down stereotypes and embracing differences.

The conversation underscores the power of upbringing and media in influencing perceptions and highlights the need for a more accepting and understanding society. Communication, as illuminated in this discussion, plays a vital role in shaping our perspectives and choices.

Smita also shares insightful stories from her childhood, revealing that her parents genuinely raised their children in an inclusive, non-judgmental, and accepting environment. She fondly recalls a humorous story about her father choosing the family’s surname, Tharoor, to hide their caste identity. The Tharoor family celebrates the idea of inclusion, non-judgment, and acceptance of differences, a fundamental reason behind Smita’s work and ideologies.

Leadership, Unconscious Bias, and Self-Love

The conversation takes an introspective turn, acknowledging the emergence of anti-caste discrimination policies by companies like Apple and Google. Smita reflects on her own upbringing in India, where she initially believed caste didn’t matter but later realized its pervasive influence on people’s lives.

Smita shares her passion for her podcast, “Stories Seldom Told,” where she interviews individuals from around the world, learning about their resilience and the biases they’ve challenged. She also expresses her desire to write a book based on the life lessons she has gleaned from these stories.

When asked about self-love, Smita encourages women to be kind to themselves and not succumb to societal pressures. She emphasizes that self-love is a crucial component of challenging biases and making positive change.

SheSight’s conversation with Smita Tharoor has offered valuable insights into the world of unconscious bias and its far-reaching effects. It serves as a reminder that awareness, reflection, and open dialogue are essential tools in our journey towards a more inclusive world.

Staff Reporter

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