Unconscious bias is a barrier to Indigenous public servants progressing in their careers – Dr Craig Leon says it’s time to think differently to tackle the problem.

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Liz Long avatar image

Liz Long

The human brain is an incredible organ. It’s what makes us intelligent, controls our behaviour and interprets the world around us.

But while our brains are incredibly powerful, they can be equally lazy. In an effort to process huge amounts of information, they take shortcuts — often without us realising.

Dr Craig Leon knows these shortcuts all too well. In fact, it’s something he is determined to change.

A proud Worimi man from Forster in New South Wales, Leon just completed a PhD thesis on unconscious bias in the Australian Public Service (APS) — specifically, how it impacts Indigenous employment.

Indigenous Australians are under-represented in the upper echelons of the public service and are more likely to leave than their non-Indigenous colleagues.

Part of the reason, Leon says, is that these unconscious shortcuts people take can make it harder for First Nations Australians to progress in their careers and to be heard.

It’s not all in your head

While everyone makes these unconscious judgements, it’s important to try and understand them and how they might impact others.

“Our brains fill in the blanks to allow us to come to a decision faster,” Leon says.

How this manifests in the workplace with regard to Indigenous public servants varies widely and in complex ways. Leon says that it can involve pressure to conform to the dominant APS culture or being stereotyped into performing specific roles and responsibilities.

“It’s quite subtle, but the effects can be insidious,” he says.

“You think to yourself: ’did that really happen or am I imagining things?’”

Indigenous Australians are under-represented in the upper echelons of the public service and are more likely to leave than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Photo: Marcus Reubenstein/unsplash.com

Now a 20-year veteran of the public service, Leon’s research often hits close to home.

“People look at me and see a fair-skinned person. Many people — non-Indigenous and Indigenous — have said to me that I don’t look Aboriginal,” Leon explains.

“But Aboriginality is much more complex than the colour of your skin.”

Several years after leaving school in year 11 to undertake a boiler-making apprenticeship, a friend recognised his passion for Indigenous affairs and encouraged him to finish school and go to university to give him the tools to make a difference.

He made his way into a cadetship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), but quickly realised that the voices, culture and experiences of First Nations Australians working in the APS were often overlooked.

“Your voice can be lost in the bureaucracy. Power imbalances between managers and staff can make it difficult to be heard, particularly when it comes to sharing Indigenous knowledge.”

Shifting the mindset

Leon undertook his PhD in order to make a lasting difference for other Indigenous APS staff.

Outright discrimination and racism may be becoming less common in the APS, but assumptions about Indigenous public servants can lead to career pigeonholing and limited promotional opportunities.

While around 3.5 per cent of the public service identified as Indigenous — a slightly higher proportion than the overall Australian population — APS employment data shows that Indigenous public servants are more likely to be working at lower workplace classifications than their non-Indigenous peers.

In 2021, 87 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees were employed in working level (APS 1–6) classifications, while 66 per cent of non-Indigenous staff were employed in these bands.

“My motivation was to leave a legacy of change, not to get a piece of paper.”

Dr Craig Leon

The rate at which Indigenous Australians leave the APS is another concern. 2021 data from the Australian Public Service Commission shows that Indigenous employees left the APS at a rate of 8.2 per cent, compared to 6.0 per cent for non-Indigenous employees. 

Leon says this is due to the “dominant Western mindset” that can underpin workplace structures, which previous research has shown can lead to discrimination and racism.

“The colour-blind approach currently taken in the APS means that the institution turns a blind eye — it doesn’t see racial difference and therefore doesn’t see racism.”

Retraining our brains

Through his research, Leon identified three priority areas that need to be addressed.

“It starts with realising and accepting that we all have biases and understanding how your own lived experience leads to you making associations which inform your attitudes and decisions.”

He says empowering Indigenous voices will also be key to improving equality in the workplace and employment outcomes.

“I’m asking the public service to reflect and identify what it means to engage with a stronger cohort of Indigenous employees.”

As for mandatory training? Leon says it’s clear that current systems need to be re-thought to better engage with the complexities of the issue.

“I recommend doing unconscious bias training differently,” he says.

“It needs to be an integrated program that is more than just a compulsory course when you join; one that combines a mixture of behavioural, cultural and structural strategies and measures.

“Conventional, off-the-shelf unconscious bias training is not enough, nor should it be seen as the ‘silver bullet’. Training has to go beyond an individual’s personal involvement in a course because research shows that learning can begin to be lost in a matter of days.

“An integrated unconscious bias training program targets cultural and structural change. Such a program seeks to embed change into the DNA of the organisation, ultimately to become accepted as ‘this is just what we do here’.”

As for what comes next, Leon hopes his PhD research — which was undertaken with the support of a Sir Roland Wilson Pat Turner Scholarship — leaves a lasting legacy.

The first Sir Roland Wilson Pat Turner scholar to complete a PhD since the program’s inception in 2018, he’s already blazing a trail that will make it easier for those who follow.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity, along with the privilege and the honour of being a Pat Turner Scholar. Being the first PhD scholar to complete is an added bonus.

“My motivation was to leave a legacy of change, not to get a piece of paper. I wanted to get the evidence that I can take back to the public service and say ‘here it is’. It’s not anecdotal anymore.”

The Sir Roland Wilson Pat Turner Scholarship is a one to three year full scholarship for any level of postgraduate study at The Australian National University or Charles Darwin University for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS 4 to SES Band 1 Australian Public Service employees.

Thumbnail image: Dr Craig Leon. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

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