What the BBC pay gap teaches us about workplace bias

BBC recently released a list of its 96 highest-paid presenters making over £150,000 (about $200,000). The report reveals that women comprise only one third of the broadcasting company’s top earners, while white men over 50 hold down the top seven spots making over £500,000. Just ten came from ethnic minority backgrounds. Among other factors, this pay gap arises from gender and racial biases that dominate the workplace.

Bias simplifies the decision-making process by manipulating facts — ignoring key information, highlighting small details, and comparing to previous experience. Simplification makes our decision easier and faster; however, the quickest, simplest decision isn’t always the best one. This is especially dangerous in the workplace. Let’s dive into a few examples that make a big difference in our value judgements.

Value Attribution

Value attribution is to evaluate something based on perceived worth rather than objective information. One of the more common metrics is price. We tend to think more expensive restaurants have better food and that cheaper products must be made of lower quality materials. The tricky part about value attribution is that it can be a reasonable metric because the reverse is often true; higher quality products often come at a steeper price. However, this is not always the case. In a famous experiment by the Washington Post, American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell posed in jeans and a tee shirt as a street performer in a busy Washington D.C. metro station. He earned $32.17 in 43 minutes of play. Even Bell’s talent was difficult to recognize when placed in a different outfit and setting.

Halo Effect

This bias emerges when we like something. The halo effect describes our inclination to place a higher value around people or projects that we’ve had a positive experience with. Rather than waiting to evaluate individual attributes, our brains shortcut the process by assigning value based on our first judgement. Though present everywhere, advertisements shamelessly exploit the effect. Daniel Craig probably isn’t the most qualified person to sell me a car — but, as the latest James Bond, he might be one of the coolest. Even when we know it’s an advertisement, the campaign introduces an unconscious association between the rich, brilliant Bond and the Range Rover Sport. In the workplace, the halo effect isn’t quite as obvious (but can be even more dangerous).

Decisions, decisions

Like all biases, value attribution and the halo effect push our decision-making further from objective reality. Unconscious judgements are difficult to tackle — they lie beneath the realm of our cognitive control. You can’t become unbiased, but education, research, and bias-mitigating products can help to reduce poor decision-making and encourage more objective performance evaluations.

It is important to accept a reality: You are human, so you make biased decisions. It’s what you do with this reality that matters.