How Unconscious Bias Impacts Women and Men

Our unconscious thoughts, beliefs, or feelings

Posted Jun 25, 2018

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Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, is the act of judging people based on our unconscious thoughts, beliefs, or feelings. Unconscious bias is where your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context impact your decisions and actions without you realizing. Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realizing it. Many people call it a form of mental shortcut. The brain has so much information to take in that it has to come up with a way of dealing with this complexity.

It’s important to remember that everyone has biases and that most bias stereotypes, do not come from a place of bad intent. It’s a deep seated, unconscious stereotype that’s been formed in our brains through years of different influences we were exposed to and that we often had no control over. A perfect illustration of how young these biases can form is represented in research involving children. The study asked children to guess whether a “really, really smart” protagonist in a story was a man or a woman. By the age of six, girls were less likely to guess that the protagonist was a woman than boys were to guess that the protagonist was a man. Fast forward to the workplace and think about of all the phrases you’ve heard associated with women in the workplace over the years, like the mommy track, the glass ceiling, the maternal wall, the gender pay gap, and like a girl. Business leaders, psychologists and sociologists are increasingly looking at unconscious bias to understand why progress has not been as fast as society demands.

Unfortunately, our bias impacts our actions. I was reminded of this when I stepped onto an airplane and peeked in the cockpit and saw that the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer were all women. My initial reaction was oh no, all women. I caught myself in my own bias and I have studied gender inequity and bias for 35 years. Think about the “average” person who has not been submerged in training, researching, blogging, and consulting in gender. Another example is when I left academia and was hired by the largest public seminar company. I immediately noticed that for the history of the organization, about 10 years, the trainers were all males and I was in the first hiring of women trainers. What became immediately apparent to me was not only the historical bias of an all-male faculty but that the women trainers all had PhDs and the male trainers had only a bachelors or master’s degree with just a couple of PhDs. When I questioned the owner and CEO about this disparity, they said audiences consistently scored male trainers higher and that the advanced degree required for women was a necessity to even the playing field; in other words, they felt women’s credibility was jeopardized without a PhD and men did not require the same qualifications for higher evaluations.

Mahzarin Banaji in the Harvard Business Review claims, “Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s best interest.” However, more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall short of our inflated self-perception.

The reality is that our biases affect us and our decision-making processes in a number of different ways:

  • Our perception – how we see people and perceive reality.
  • Our attitude – how we react towards certain people.
  • Our behaviors – how receptive/friendly we are towards certain people.
  • Our attention – which aspects of a person we pay most attention to.
  • Our listening skills – how much we actively listen to what certain people say.
  • Our micro-affirmations – how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations.

What can organizations do to combat unconscious bias?  First, we all need to slow down when we jump to conclusions. Fight the automatic urge to jump to conclusions. Next, make the unconscious, conscious. Conduct training that facilitates open discussions and let employees know that they will be held accountable from the top down positions; from the CEO to the administrative assistant.