Dr Pragya Agarwal – Q&A

Dr Pragya Agrawal’s book, Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, was published by Bloomsbury on 2 April 2020.

Pragya kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about Sway.

‘SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias’ is released on 2 April in UK and India and on 2 June in the USA with Bloomsbury. We like to believe that we are all fair-minded and egalitarian but we all carry biases that we might not even be aware of. We might believe that we live in a post-racial society, but racial tension and inequality is pernicious and pervasive. We might believe that gender inequality is a thing of the past, but it is still ubiquitous.

Unconscious bias has become a frequently-used term in our vocabulary, but there are still so many myths around it. For the first time, I have attempted to unravel the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, and how they affect our decision-making, even in life and death situations.  In SWAY, I cover a wide range of implicit biases in depth, including age-ism, appearance, technology, accents, sexism and aversive racism. Throughout, SWAY answers questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when our biases are activated? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

2. What inspired the book, why a book about unconscious bias?

What we are seeing around us in most parts of the world is that partisan politics is taking centre stage, dividing people, and causing rifts and conflicts. It is imperative that at a time when we are all struggling to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do. This book emerges from my own academic research interests in bias and its effect on technology and decisions, and my personal experience of facing bias in different forms. This book is also influenced by the rise of social media and how our echo chambers are affecting our own loyalties and behaviours. And, this book is inspired by my three children to whom I dedicate this book because they are the future, and I owe them an unbiased world. We all do. Most of all it is inspired by everyone who has faced, or continues to face oppression, prejudice and discrimination during their lives, even at times when it is a matter of life and death. They deserve to be seen and heard, and they deserve fairness and compassion. And, we all need to do better. 

My interest in unconscious bias has been hugely shaped by my own experiences. And, while a major thrust of the book is scientific, I do bring some personal anecdotes into the book to support and supplement, as they are integral to the story here and important in understanding the personal impact that unconscious bias can have on individuals. As a behavioural scientist, I have always been interested in what makes us react and behave as we do. Teaching user-interface design and knowledge representation, it became more apparent to me how bias is inherent in the actions we take and every decision we make. This book is the culmination of my own research and a deep-dive into the work done by others in this field.

3. How much research and planning went into the book?

The research for this book has been going on for almost ten years. As an academic, I had been looking at scientific literature and doing my own surveys and data collection. As a diversity consultant, I had been working with organisations on creative inclusivity strategies for their organisations and this experience also fed into this book. Bringing all this together was very challenging.

I have taken a very inter-disciplinary approach to examining implicit biases. For this book, I read hundreds (and many more!) scientific research papers, across many disciplines including psychology, evolution, neuroscience, social science, linguistics, philosophy, machine learning and AI. I also interviewed many experts and researchers, as well as looked at the current myths and misconceptions around bias. I have also included personal stories because real life stories and narratives matter to ground the scientific studies. And, I also bring in examples and case studies from contemporary literature, and popular media. The book starts with our evolutionary past, examining whether the roots for our biases lie in there, and looks at what happens in our brains when we are biased. Thereafter I look at a range of different biases, and then zoom into more specific biases such as sexism, racism, accent bias, name bias, AI and bias, and so on. I bring it all together in the end to discuss the moral and ethical implications with a section on how we can de-bias. Over 450 pages, this is an exhaustive and very detailed book. But it has been written with a diverse audience in mind, so that it can resonate with everyone who reads it.

Nikesh Shukla, the co-founder of Good Literary Agency and author and editor of ‘Good Immigrant’ and ‘Boxer’ says that it is ‘compellingly readable’ and Angela Saini, the science journalist and author of Inferior and Superior has called it ‘exhaustive’ and ‘eye-opening’.

4. Did you find anything unique while writing SWAY?

 Where do I start! We often think that unconscious bias only covers race and gender, but it is far more pervasive than that. Disability, sexuality, body size, profession and so on all influence the assessments we make of people, and form the basis of our relationship with others and the world at large. For instance, an in-depth study of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017 shows that male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles and are given far more speaking parts than females. Where other, non-human creatures feature in books, the gender bias is even more marked. Whenever an author reveals a creature’s sex, there is only a 27 per cent chance the character is female. In another instance, when YouTube launched the video upload feature for their app, 5–10 per cent of videos were uploaded upside-down, and for a while Google developers were baffled. Eventually they figured out it wasn’t poor design; they had only considered right- handed users. Their unconscious bias had overlooked the fact that left-handed users would turn the phone/app by 180 degrees. The book is filled with hundreds of such fascinating examples and scientific studies.

5. What are you hoping this book will achieve?

I am hoping this book will enable people to reflect and consider the forces that shape us all, opening our eyes to own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way. Hopefully this book will help people understand that we are all biased, and we all carry stereotypes, and be more aware of how these biases affect our perception of other people, and how it affects our actions and interactions. There is also a false belief that somehow technology is unbiased, and that it is a panacea for all ill in society. But through this book, I also show that it is not the case. Technology is shaped by humans, and so it is shaped by the individual and societal biases. So, while technology reinforces and perpetuates existing biases, it also creates new forms of bias, and we need to examine social media, algorithms and AI with a probing eye. The aim is that this book will make people see that despite it becoming such a buzzword, unconscious bias is not just a trend, and remind people why we need more diverse and inclusive teams in our workplaces. Hopefully this book will make all of us kinder and more compassionate human beings, not with people who are just like us, but with everyone outside our echo chambers, and comfort zones.

6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I love to read, of course. I like sketching and painting, and I also do linocut printmaking which is very relaxing and meditative. I also have two small children, so much of the time away from writing is spent with them walking the dogs in the woods near our house, doing art, baking and cooking. It sounds like a cliché, but writing is always very relaxing for me.

7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

That would be impossible for me. I pick at books like a magpie and have several books on the go at the same time, especially if they are non-fiction. So, it would be quite painful to just read one book for the rest of my life especially as I already feel that there are too many good books, and too little time.

8. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

Ah- I’ve been asked so many questions that this is a tough one. I would say that perhaps ‘why do I write’. I find it very intriguing as to why we have this inherent primal need to write, to record our stories, to research stories, to tell a story. I write because I feel that every story matters. The publishing industry as we know is not very diverse, and so I feel that it is also a responsibility to bring a diverse voice to the industry. In a world that is increasingly fractious and divided, and as we swing from one political disaster to the next, the only thing that makes sense is a shared connection, someone to say ‘I felt the same’ and for us to feel that the fears and the joys that we experience are valid. These connections reassure us of our own humanity and of others. If we don’t talk about our stories, honestly and openly, how can we say to anyone that it is ok to feel shame, fear, loneliness, misery. And, how can we hold hands across the divide and say that we are not that different after all, and even when we are, we can rejoice in these differences.

About the book

Have you ever been told to smile more, been teased about your accent, or had your name pronounced incorrectly? If so, you’ve probably already faced bias in your everyday life. We like to believe that we are all fair-minded and egalitarian but we all carry biases that we might not even be aware of.

For the first time, behavioural scientist, activist and writer Dr Pragya Agarwal unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, and how they affect our decision-making, even in life and death situations. She takes a unique inter-disciplinary approach combining case studies, personal experience, interviews and real-world stories underpinned by scientific theories and research. Throughout, Pragya answers questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

At a time when partisan political ideologies are taking centre stage, and we struggle to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do. This book will enable you to reflect and consider the forces that shape us all, opening your eyes to your own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.

About the author

Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, with expertise in cognition, HCI and User-centred Design, focussed especially in diversity and inclusivity. She was a senior academic for over 12 years at US and UK Universities, and held the prestigious Leverhulme Fellowship, following a PhD from the University of Nottingham. Pragya has published numerous scientific articles and books, some of which are on the reading list for leading courses around the world. As a freelance writer, she regularly writes thought pieces on racial and gender bias for The Guardian, Times Higher Education, Forbes, Prospect, Independent, Metro, Huffington Post and various other publications.

Pragya is a two-time TEDx speaker, and was named as one of the 100 influential women in social enterprise in the UK, and one of 50 people creating change in the UK-India corridor on the High and Mighty list. She has been invited to give keynote talks and workshops around the world, and has appeared on several international podcasts, radio and television channels, such as BBC Woman’s Hour, BBC Breakfast, Radio 5 Live, BBC Merseyside, Australian Broadcasting Service, and Canadian Radio. She organised the first ever TEDxWoman event in the north of the country, and has a podcast called ‘Outside the Boxes’.

She can be found on twitter as @DrPragyaAgarwal

One Comment Add yours

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Very interesting. I’m currently putting together a workshop and a series of resources on unconscious bias, so this is perfect timing for me.


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