Information Shared from AIA California
Exercising the Amygdala: Reflections on Unconscious Bias
By Ian Merker, AIA
On September 25, AIA California hosted an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Webinar led by world-renowned global thought leader Dr. Shirley Davis.
The topic, “Unconscious Bias in Leadership Decision-Making, brought with it some heavy conversation about race, gender, diversity, and inclusion, and tested the preconceived knowledge held by some. Vice President of Communications, Ian Merker, AIA, was on the call and ready to be challenged. Below are some of his reflections from the afternoon.
Unconscious bias is a subtle cognitive process that starts in the amygdala of the brain. What is a useful tool in animal instincts that alerts one to potential danger, thus igniting the fight-flight-freeze response. However, in modern society, humans must distinguish between positive and negative instincts when it comes to daily interactions with fellow humans. In order to address the need for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the architectural profession, I have found that I must move from unconscious to conscious awareness of my biases.
It feels like an evolutionary advance to work toward a higher level of awareness. Members of the AIA CA Board of Directors participated in an interactive training to understand unconscious bias and how it affects the workplace. Dr. Shirley Davis was invited to guide us in a training called “Unconscious Bias in Leadership Decision-Making”. Dr. Davis is no stranger to the architectural community. She has led multiple workshops with AIA National conferences and committees. She starts the training by explaining the science behind cognitive behavior and continues with a series of exercises and lessons geared to encourage recognizing behavior and learning how to switch gears.
One exercise in particular stood out to me. We were asked to examine a group of faces and give an opinion on if we thought the person was trustworthy. Instinctively, I found one of the faces to be ingenuine. At the end of the exercise, it was revealed that the face is of a minister and activist who works for equal rights. There was no reason other than the unconscious to judge their face as ingenuine. It makes no difference if I was raised in a family and community that encouraged openness and appreciation of many cultures. I recognize that bias exists in my mind and it cannot be ignored.
How does this training relate to the practice of architecture? Why use our time and efforts as the AIA California Board of Directors? Despite an air of understanding, problem solving and thought leadership, our profession continues to allow decision making in critical areas of interaction to be clouded by bias. Hiring staff, team dynamics, and salaries are a few areas directly impacted by the way leaders use their instincts to make decisions.
I’m glad that I spent that afternoon exercising my amygdala, and I will make an effort to use the tools in this training to have greater awareness in my decision making. Understanding unconscious bias is one of the first steps AIA California has taken to address racial justice, and I look forward to participating in additional actions to bring myself and my colleagues closer to achieving a more ethical profession.