Would you have said the same if? Uncovering Unconscious Bias

Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed

Your words say I am welcome but the situation says I am not. This is the experience reported by many in the Church who do not fit the mould of white, male and middle class.

The recent Growing Vocations conference offered a welcome opportunity to discuss what unconscious bias means and how we can overcome it.

The subtlety of bias is often so slight as to be unnoticed by those perpetrating it, which makes it all the more important that we are able to identify our own unconscious bias. This applies to each one of us, but is particularly true for those who act as gatekeepers to formal vocations in the Church. Unknowingly turning away talent hinders the excluder as well as the excluded. Bias must be overcome, and our leadership demonstrably more inclusive, if the Church is to fulfil its mission to be a light to all people. This was the subject of Revd Saju Muthalaly’s unconscious bias seminar at the recent Growing Vocations Conference.

Here’s the science bit. As we go through life, our brain is continually required to make a tremendous number of decisions. In order to cope, many of these judgments are made unconsciously and instantaneously. This is generally a good thing. Just think how little we would get done if all of our unconscious behaviour required the careful weighing up associated with deliberate decision making. However, the inherent problem is that because these assessments are really assumptions, based on our background, cultural environment and personal experience, they often end up being flawed. Take a look at this video produced by the Royal Society to see what I mean.

As a Church, we preach that all are welcome, but the lack of visible role models can make it difficult for people to feel they truly belong. This video, presented to General Synod two years ago, captures this feeling well.

All of us have a perspective. None of us are immune from it. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is something you should reflect on. A good test then to overcome it is to take a step back and ask oneself, would I have thought the same if this person looked or sounded like me?

By asking this question we move towards inclusion. Inclusion is different to diversity. Diversity is the mix, inclusion is how we make it work. Diversity is a given, inclusion is a choice. This was a key message of Revd Saju Muthalaly’s talk.

In this light, Ministry Division is promoting formal unconscious bias training, particularly aimed at Incumbents, DDOs, Vocation Advisers and Educators, to enable us to recognise where our subconscious decision making is holding us back, in order that we can each take positive steps to overcome it. Get in touch with your diocese to find out more and to book a session, or contact me directly.

We’ll also be hosting the ‘Come and See’ conference in March, for those of BAME background exploring vocations. If you haven’t already, you can book tickets to ‘Come and See’ here. We would encourage you to share this invitation to what promises to be a supportive and extremely insightful event, and to promote unconscious bias training for all your vocations staff.

Let’s press pause on our unconscious bias.


Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed is the Church of England’s National Minority Ethnic Vocations Officer.