What’s your blind spot? A vision for diversity, leadership and professionalism

When you are the youngest President in the history of the AVA, you get a backstage pass to conversations about diversity, particularly in relation to leadership diversity. In addition to being consistent with our values, there is a growing body of evidence that articulates a clear business case for diversity. Unconscious bias is one of the fundamental challenges to truly embracing diversity and all of the benefits that having a diverse set of viewpoints and experiences can bring to the table. Through the very nature of being unconscious, this type of bias is insidious and easy to internalise.

Education has been transformational in my understanding of unconscious bias and how I navigate the landscape as an individual and as a leader. Through the Implicit Association test and their 2013 book ‘Blind spot: hidden biases of good people’, the authors and researchers from Harvard University encourage us to take a peek into the unconscious and examine the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status and nationality. As it turns out, I’m not quite as magnanimous as I like to think I am.

There is a growing body of research that examines gender diversity and the strong link back to the role of unconscious bias in our decision-making and our assessments of ourselves and of each other. Understanding the warmth versus competence dimension and how that differs between the sexes has been eye opening for me. As women, we are socialised to be warm, friendly, sensitive and softly spoken. Conversely, men are socialised to be self-confident, ambitious and to display behavioural dominance. These are also the traits that are associated with effective leaders (consciously and unconsciously). Herein lies the double bind for women: it is easy to be characterised as cold, or the dreaded ‘B’ word, in leadership roles and also easy to be dismissed as ineffective leaders if we behave in a socially expected way.

For example, we are working on a program to assist members who are returning to clinical work after a break. If we don’t check our unconscious bias, it is easy for this to be a conversation about ‘mothers returning to work’. However, this language can be heteronormative and reinforce unintended messages about the role of different family members in child rearing. This language can also unconsciously portray that the only reason someone would take time away from a clinical role is for family reasons. This isn’t the case; there are many reasons someone may choose to do this, including pursuing the many amazing professional opportunities outside of clinical roles.

Encouraging the tough conversations, challenging our viewpoints and the words that we use are key. We all have a responsibility to speak up when we witness bias at play (and most importantly being honest with ourselves). How we approach the conversation is also key. We can all benefit from examining our unconscious biases and how we can overcome them. However, shame isn’t
an effective leadership style. Our role as leaders is to have these conversations with each other with courage and grace, and to encourage these qualities in our profession as a whole.

Paula Parker, President 

This article appeared in the December 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal                

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