More on Bias and Disability


I read/listened to Iris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality by Design quickly. Bohnet is an economist. Not one of the dull types we are familiar with who bang on about GDP or balance of trade, but a Behavioural Economist. Behavioural economics is about what works, and what doesn’t – based on research, and not opinion or belief. There’s a wide gap between the two. 

I discovered the Freakonomics Radio podcast a few years back – the first effort to make Behavioural Economics popular. That got me curious. The UK government created its Nudge Unit back in 2010 to employ Behavioural Economic principles in its public sector. The idea of ‘nudging’ people toward desired actions intrigued me.

Bohnet’s exploration of gender equity issues is a tour of the biases that impede aspirations to gender equity. It is also a discussion on how to overcome the intention/action gaps that so often turn virtuous intent into just so many fine sounding words. 

When we look at reports on the status of marginalised people, we so often see expressions like “we need to do more” year after year. For example, from the NSW 2020 State of the Public Sector report we find “Much remains to be done…” and in the 2021 report “There is much to be done…”

Such inertia, and the need to say “More needs to be done” year after year, it seems, may be caused by bias. What is the “more” that must be done, and why isn’t it being done? What is impeding it?

What About Bias is Hard?

A little while ago I was intrigued by the idea of the wood wide web. Beneath the surface of a forest floor there is a network of roots and fungi that makes what we see as a bunch of individual trees intimately connected – to such a degree that it hard to see a forest as anything other than a community – and maybe a single organism. And trees are biased. They are shown to behave preferentially toward their own. Here’s a quick taste of this extraordinary insight.

As I reflect on bias, it seems we have an interlocking network of preferences and aversions that ties us to some, and keeps us distant from others. Such a network sustains us psychologically at a personal and family level, socially, and culturally – and impacts our physical wellbeing as well. How we chose, and why we chose, are fundamental to who we are. On one level philosophers argue over whether we have free will at all. It’s a complex subject, but choice-making is a foundational theme for understanding being human. Not honouring this level of complexity seems foolish. Bias is no simple matter.

In fact, bias is good in so many ways. By making it a negative thing, we impede our ability to think about it. So let me be clear. In the context of public service natural bias is a problem because there is an explicit requirement to treat all members of a community equally. That means that public servants must shift their sense of identity from our hardwired commitment to family, kin, and tribe to a novel sense of identifying with 8+ million people (in the case of NSW).

This is no easy thing to do. Anyone brought up in a religious environment will quickly know that despite noble sentiments, it’s hard to move away from one’s own faith community. Likewise, secular humanitarians will recognise that identifying with humanity, as a whole, is way more difficult than connecting with local groups with single, but noble motives.

In short, we humans are not naturally fitted to being unbiased. That’s a stretch goal – and not everyone is keen to stretch – or be stretched. We may recognise the virtue of a goal (the talk) but acting in conformity with that goal (the walk) is another thing.

From an historical and sociological perspective, contemporary Western communities are complex, pluralistic and diverse. Identifying across multiple groups is novel – and difficult. This is one of the compelling arguments for a diverse public service. Public servants, as a group, can overcome the natural hardwired tendency toward selective bias only when there is sufficient diversity.

Bohnet argues that diversity must be designed properly. Having a single member of a ‘diversity group’ risks tokenism – and can backfire. Likewise setting quotas can be problematic if not done intelligently. In short, mixing and matching to create what superficially looks like diversity may not only not work, it may also have the opposite effect – by hardening attitudes against the people intended to be helped.

In essence, the kind of unbiased work and service environments we see as essential in public service are the result of an acknowledged need to ensure fairness and equity. They are necessary, but they are also aspirational – in that they stretch members of the public sector to go places they are not comfortable going – and may not wish to go there in any case.

Beneath the noble rhetoric of public service, for most people it’s a job – and they will do as little as they need to do to keep it. For many, honouring the obligations they have toward those to whom they are naturally biased, is demanding enough. Having to overcome hardwired biases demands extra effort. If an organisation’s efforts to overcome biases is not coherent, consistent, strategic, and accountable it should not be surprising that efforts at equity, fairness and inclusion fail, have unintended consequences, and are resisted and mistrusted.

This is why this is all so hard.

What Can We Do?

There are a number of things we can do to overcome the intention/action gap to transform virtuous intent (the talk) into virtuous action (the walk).

  1. Learn about our own inherent biases. As advocates and activists for Disability Inclusion, we will be more effective if we shift our understanding about what impedes that transition from ‘the talk’ to ‘the walk’.  There is a very good tool set up by Harvard University where we can self-test our own biases.
  2. Learn to think more strategically. Iris Bohnet’s book is a great place to start. Being armed with knowledge and insights makes a big difference. If your goal is to persuade an organisation to change how it is doing Disability Inclusion, getting it to be more strategic and accountable will take some doing.
  3. Learn to act more strategically. There is clear evidence that some actions are ineffectual, and others may have contrary consequences. For example, if you are seeking greater representation of people with disability in a group, don’t be content with numbers so low that they are little more than tokenism – and make sure the same group has members of other diversity groups as well. Bohnet has other guidance and resources too.


As I looked deeper into the problem of bias, I started to see possible explanations for my persistent concern with inaction in the face of evidence of bullying and abusive conduct toward staff with disability by managers. This conduct is acknowledged, but change to address it is very slow.

Moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, offered some vital insight in his observation that not everyone is comfortable with enforcing accountability for misconduct. Add to this group behaviour in hierarchies, where leaders are more likely to identify as a group and be more self-protective, and there is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Bias is another puzzle piece – one that may bring the whole picture closer to being resolved. Let’s see.

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