A decision to reject the appointment of Althea Efunshile as a non-executive board member of Channel Four by Secretary of State Karen Bradley has fuelled a controversy about conscious and unconscious biases in the selection process
The story hit the headlines recently as it emerged that Althea Efunshile was the only non-white candidate on the short list, was highly recommended by a previous minister of culture, and appeared to have considerable talents that would have made her a strong candidate.
The Guardian offered a mild rebuke in a Leader column [8th December 2016] arguing the possibility of unconscious bias of interview panellists. In an article on the same day, the paper set a more outraged tone:
Synopsis of the Guardian article:
The former culture minister David Lammy has said the decision to block the appointment of a black woman to the all-white board of Channel 4 “beggars belief” and has called for the precise reasons to be revealed.
The former deputy chief executive of Arts Council England Althea Efunshile was informed last week that her appointment had been blocked by the secretary of state, Karen Bradley.
This was despite it being recommended by regulator Ofcom, which is tasked with finding, vetting and appointing Channel 4’s board members and it having the support of the broadcaster’s chairman, Charles Gurassa.
[Mr Lammy] who is currently chairing the all-party review of racial bias in the criminal justice system, said the case raised important questions.
An advertisement seeking non-executive directors for the Channel 4 board was published in the spring and, in June, the Guardian understands, Efunshile was contacted by headhunters about applying. An interview then took place in July with the panel chaired by Dame Patricia Hodgson, chair of Ofcom. The interview would appear to have gone extremely well as her name was quickly put forward to the DCMS for rubber-stamping.
She was recommended with two others also with strong business backgrounds, who were later ratifiedOver the summer the roles were advertised again and in September two further names, were submitted by Ofcom.
Ms Efunshile was later informed by headhunters that her appointment had been blocked because she did not meet the criteria laid out in the original job application. The other four candidates were formally appointed the following day.
Insensitivity, or conscious biases?
I suggest that the explanation of the effect of unconscious bias is hardly convincing. It could hardly have escaped notice that the board was lacking in female and non-white members (no-women, no persons of colour). A more plausible explanation is that of conscious bias.
Appointment by box ticking
Another convincing explanation lies in the practice of reducing the process to box ticking against specific critieria to be found on the job application document. This may actually succeed in reducing unconscious bias, but does nothing to address the tin-eared insensitivity displayed by compliant appointment boards.
I understand such processes are to be found elsewhere in sports management, and have spread even to the search for England football managers.