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BAME footballers, unconscious bias and the workplace

08 August 2017

A study published last year analysed the racial composition of professional football club leadership, looking at players, coaches and key decision-makers in Premier League and Football League clubs.

The research, by Binna Kandola, found that 25% of professional footballers were BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic). Given that, one would expect to see a similar proportion of BAME captains, yet only 13% of captains in the Premiership and Football Leagues in 2016 were BAME.

Off the pitch, the position is even more stark. Professional managers are invariably former players, so it might be expected that managers and players would have similar levels of BAME representation. In the 2016/17 season of the Premier League, however, not a single manager or assistant manager was BAME (although that will change in the 2017/18 season: newly promoted Brighton’s manager Chris Hughton is half-Ghanaian).

It appears that clubs trust BAME individuals with their football skills but not their leadership abilities. Supply may be a factor in this. Are enough BAME players being encouraged to consider a future in management and investing sufficient time in developing the skills for doing so? Binna Kandola’s research did not consider this, but one famous BAME ex-player struggling to fulfil his management aspirations is former Arsenal and England defender Sol Campbell. While he doesn’t pin his inability to secure a managerial position on being BAME, his example shows the difficulties that even the highest achieving former players can experience.

Taking a broader look at senior leadership roles in football, the level of BAME representation is similarly poor. In June, the Football Association’s first black female director quit in frustration at the lack of progress being made. Admittedly, football is not alone with regard to inadequate BAME representation in senior roles: research last year found that just 1.6% of directors in the 150 top FTSE companies were BAME. The issue transcends diffferent industries.

Clearly it is unlikely that outright racism is the main cause of low BAME diversity at leadership level in football, but unconscious bias may be to blame.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious biases are prejudices that we have but of which are unaware. They are mental shortcuts based on social norms and stereotypes which may be triggered by myriad factors, for example: skin colour; gender; age; height; weight; introversion vs. extroversion; marital and parental status; disability (e.g. the use of a wheelchair or a cane); foreign accent; and educational background. If you can name it, there’s probably an unconscious bias for it.

Examples of just how everyday and accidental unconscious biases can be are sometimes picked up by media and social media alike. In the press conference after his quarter final Wimbledon defeat, Andy Murray corrected a journalist after he said Sam Querrey, who had just beaten him, was "the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009". Murray reminded the reporter that he was only talking about male players, as the US has enjoyed considerably greater success on the female side of the sport.

One of the reasons why unconscious bias exists is that people like those who are similar to them. A manager might listen more, or be supportive of, someone from the same part of the country as them. This is known as “affinity bias” – we feel an empathy and rapport with a person who has similar life experiences to us.

Another form of unconscious bias is known as the “halo effect”. This is where a positive trait is transferred onto a person without anything really being known about them. For instance, those who dress conservatively are often regarded as more capable in an office environment, based purely on their attire.

The science bit

When unconscious biases are left to persist, the impact over time can be huge. A well-known study in 1996 showed the cumulative impact of unconscious bias, using a computer simulation of an organisation with eight levels of hierarchy. The lowest level had 500 employees in it and the highest just ten. The simulation started with equal numbers of men and women at each level.

This fictional organisation was given a 15% attrition rate, meaning that in the lowest group 75 employees would be lost each year. The vacant positions at higher levels were filled by those from the level below, based on randomly generated test scores – but men were given a 1% bias. After 20 iterations, the bottom level rose to 53% women while the top level fell to 35% women. Where men received a 5% bias, the bottom level rose to 58% women and the top level fell to 29% women. Conclusion: even a small bias can have a very significant impact over time.

You can test the percentage of your own biases using the Implicit Association Test, created by the universities of Harvard, Virginia and Washington, which has been used by millions of people in over 20 countries. In fact it includes a series of separate tests designed to measure an individual’s biases against nationalities, race, colour, weight, gender, sexuality and age. It is worth spending the few minutes it takes to do each test: you will most likely learn things about your attitudes to different groups that of which you were completely unaware.

Practical tips

Training on unconscious bias can help and should form part of any organisation’s routine training and development offering. That said, there is only so much that training can achieve. It assumes that, having been taught to identify their biases, people will be equipped with an awareness that will help correct their thinking. Arguably, exposing bias does not make it go away. Exposure may help you gain insight - with an assumption that you will reflect on that insight - but it is not guaranteed to change your behaviour.

To tackle unconscious bias really effectively, employers need to think about where it can have an impact at each stage of their organisation’s processes - from hiring to firing and every stage in between. Employers should take steps to minimise and reduce the opportunity for bias. For example, consider name-blinding CVs so that a “John", "Richard", "Mark" or "Mary” cannot be assessed any differently to an “Ali”, “Assaf”, “Afshan”, “Gurdeep” or “Li-Wang”. Some organisations are also taking similar steps to remove academic and education details from application processes, which can have a positive impact on social mobility.

Automation of processes through systems can also useful in some circumstances. Note, however, that computers programmed with a biased approach will not be effective: they will merely make the same biased decisions as a human, only more quickly!

There are therefore various practical measures for employers to consider in thinking strategically about reducing the impact of unconscious bias within their organisations. Coming back to the under-representation of BAME football captains and managers, the goal should be a completely level playing field.

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