What can press officers learn from unconscious bias?

16th November 2017

On a mild night approaching the end of October, Stempra members gathered in The Crown Tavern in Farringdon to discuss unconscious bias. Omar Jamshed, Stempra committee member and chair of the event, started the proceedings by asking panel members if STEM has a diversity problem…

On the panel were Lenna Cumberbatch Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Lynn Huynh, Communications Manager at the Wellcome Trust.

Lenna, in response to Omar’s first question, talked about how in general, people can paint diversity by class, race, gender, sexuality etc. She introduced intersectionality to the conversation and commented that we have a problem with diversity in general, not just in STEM.

Lynn shared her learning’s from her role at Wellcome. Diversity recently became a priority for Wellcome in October 2016 so a big part of her role is about what to consider when thinking about a communications message that takes account of diversity. This includes breaking down the language and taking it back to lowest common denominator.

The panel discussed examples of diversity and unconscious bias and where, for example, it had gone wrong. Think Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner or the recent Dove advert.

What followed was a passionate discussion of unconscious bias and why problems in diversity can happen. The panel agreed that organisations and people want to be inclusive, but the problem is that they do not realise they’re being unconsciously bias.

Unconscious bias is a relatively new field of research. The Royal Society, Lenna’s previous place of work, has a quick video that introduces the key concepts which Stempra peeps may find useful: https://youtu.be/dVp9Z5k0dEE

So, after a lengthy debate, Stempra members in the room talked about how unconscious bias appears in their roles. Who would you put forward for an interview, for example, a ‘white man’ or an ‘asian woman’ and what do you do if the media outlet you’re working with pushes for an expert to fill their ‘diversity check box’? Would putting forward female scientists on the radio not mask a deeper institutional problem? These are the tricky situations us press officers can find ourselves in.

And the general consensus? It’s a balance. If you can add that voice to the conversation that represents diversity in STEM, then great. But it’s important to remember that who you put up for interview needs to be media-versed and prepared, no matter what they look like.

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