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Mindfulness offers a new way to reduce bias

Our brains are constantly processing the information that bombards us. We need to make sense of the world—and fast—so we use stereotypes to fill any gaps. These stereotypes lead to biases that can affect our judgement and the way we make decisions.

Is there something we can do to reduce these biases and prevent them from influencing our choices? Recent studies have shown that mindfulness practice may be an effective way to reduce bias.

Bias in the legal world

Bias can weaken the principles of fairness and justice that are central to the law. Michael Kahn, an instructor in the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia, suggests that bias “can negatively impact our interactions with others and lead us to make decisions that unintentionally disadvantage or disrespect others who are different from us.” These biases can also “lead to unfair results, or keep disadvantaged people groups from fair and proportionate participation.”

Bias is also reflected in the make up of the legal profession. Atricia Lewis cites statistics from 2016, in which “29.4 per cent of lawyers in Ontario were racialized, yet less than 7.8 per cent of all law firm partners were racialized.” Bias also affects the way lawyers from marginalized groups are perceived. A 2014 study found that senior lawyers were more critical of a memo when they were told its writer was black. These unconscious biases can influence the access lawyers have to career opportunities, and have been shown to affect retention within law firms.

Despite The Federation of Law Societies of Canada reporting in 2016, that there were 43,595 women practicing law and 53,257 men practicing law, female lawyers still face widespread gender bias. Women make up 9.3% of law firm partners versus 22.3% for their male counterparts and a report by the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession found female lawyers of colour were eight times more likely than caucasian men to report that they had been mistaken for janitorial staff, administrative staff, or court personnel.

How can mindfulness work against bias?

Bias occurs at an unconscious level, when the brain is trying to evaluate information quickly and fit it into categories. Mindfulness practices, on the other hand, ask you to take time to check in, to focus on the present and become aware of what is going on around you. You are able to evaluate information in a more intentional way, relying less on automatic associations—the ones that make up bias.

Ways mindfulness can benefit the legal world

Perhaps the best reason for choosing mindfulness as a way to reduce bias is the fact that it does so in a non-confrontational way. Researcher Lueke suggests that “the fact that mindfulness is not specifically targeted towards reducing discrimination . . . is very positive, because people won’t have their guards up.”

Mindfulness practice allows you (not your unconscious thoughts) to choose how you interact with those around you. That is a powerful tool in reducing bias.

 

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