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Unconscious bias trial at Victoria University Law School

05 May 2017 - By Liesle Theron

The New Zealand Law Society and Victoria University’s Law School are collaborating to equip future members of the legal profession with unconscious bias training. This work stems from a recommendation made by the Law Society’s Women’s Advisory Panel to embed unconscious bias training at key stages of legal careers.

Head and shoulders photo of Angela Ballentyne
Angela Ballentyne,
senior lecturer in bioethics at Otago University

Unconscious bias refers to unconscious beliefs and attitudes – often based on stereotypes – that can affect behaviour, and is increasingly recognised as a barrier to a diverse and inclusive professional culture. With support from the Law Society, Victoria’s Law School is trialling unconscious bias sessions as part of its Ethics and the Law course, which is compulsory for students wishing to qualify for admission to the bar.

On 27 March, Angela Ballantyne, senior lecturer in bioethics at Otago University, gave the first lecture on unconscious bias. She explained that she was prompted to discuss this issue with her students after noticing that, over the course of a 1.5-hour guest lecture, only the men in her medical ethics class participated.

Shortly after sexual harassment issues among surgeons in Australia were revealed by the media with Sydney surgeon, Dr Gabrielle McMullin warning that sexism was so rife among surgeons, and complaint mechanisms were so weak, that it was safer for women, in terms of their careers, to give in to sexual advances from superiors rather than to refuse them or complain. “My students were outraged by this,” says Dr Ballantyne. “But they didn’t make the connection between the power dynamics in the classroom and these problems that women were facing in practice.”

Common to all

Unconscious bias is based on mental schemas we have that help us interpret our experiences. We all have them and they affect how we see ourselves, others and the opportunities available to us. Dr Ballantyne outlined the data on women in leadership and how, in some respects, New Zealand’s position has deteriorated rather than improved over the past 10 years. She referred to the well-documented phenomena of both men and women interrupting women more during conversation and calling on male students more than female students in teaching environments, as well as hiring and promoting men over women, and paying men more.

She said parenthood exacerbates these issues – with women being penalised for motherhood but the opposite effect being observed in relation to men.

The lecture covered how stereotypes such as the concept of a “real man” can harm men. Dr Ballantyne used statistics which show higher rates of suicide among men despite the higher rates of reported mental illness among women. She pointed out that this is a particular issue in the legal profession, given high baseline rates of mental and physical illness, and challenged students to start grappling with it now.

Dr Ballantyne outlined the two broad strands in terms of solutions that have been suggested. First, an agency approach, associated with Sheryl Sandberg, which suggests ways that women can change their own behaviour – by, for example, “leaning in”, “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” or aiming for “good enough” rather than perfection. Second, is a structural approach, associated with Anne-Marie Slaughter, which suggests ways in which we, as a society, can change our environment including through flexible working and parental leave policies, and supporting men to take on greater responsibility for parenting. She noted that it is a particular issue for the legal profession that we bill our time rather than for the value of our work.

Multi-dimensional challenge

Unconscious bias is a complex, multi-dimensional challenge. In addition to gender, implicit biases have been well documented in relation to ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and many other factors. These biases intersect and can also shift over time.

Dr Ballantyne explained the studies which show that although it is generally accepted by the medical profession that pharmaceutical companies influence doctors’ decisions, many individual doctors will not accept that it is a problem for them personally. And a Yale bias study which found that the one thing that correlated with the degree of demonstrated gender bias was how objective participants thought they were. Companies that describe themselves as ‘meritocracies’ have the lowest rates of diversity. “If you’re sitting there and thinking ‘it’s not me’, then it is you, it is especially you”.

Professor Mark Hickford, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law at Victoria University, said the lecture was well received. “This is an important issue and it’s appropriate that the legal profession, given its role in society, is at the forefront of addressing it. Victoria’s Law School is pleased to be working with the Law Society on this initiative, which we hope will become a fixture of our Ethics course.”


Liesle Theron liesle.theron@mc.co.nz is a partner at Meredith Connell and a member of the NZLS Women’s Advisory Panel. She is also convenor of the NZLS Law Reform Committee.

Last updated on the 5th May 2017