It isn’t a riddle, though it does catch out most of us. Almost 95% of us, to be precise. Such is the prevalence of unconscious bias.
What is unconscious bias?
Broadly speaking, unconscious bias is what happens when we automatically make a choice or a decision based on our unconscious beliefs, which are built upon our own life experiences and expectations. It is what helps you to identify your own child’s voice in a crowded noisy classroom, or allows you to recognise someone at a distance because of their posture or gait. It is ‘knowledge’ that you have acquired without thinking about it, thus it is ‘unconscious’.
So in many ways, it’s a handy reflex that saves you time and avoids confusion in your everyday life. The difficulty arises when we apply these biases in other situations without properly examining them. When we are too quick to judge, or make lazy assumptions.
The term really hit the headlines in 1995, when research by American psychologists Tony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji showed the shocking pervasiveness of prejudgement in the workplace. Whenever we pre-judge a person based on factors such as age, religion, gender, race, sexuality, or appearance, we are subjecting them to our unconscious biases. We are discriminating, thoughtlessly.
Bias at work
There is a lot of evidence highlighting the negative influence that unconscious bias can have in the workplace, especially when it comes to recruiting new employees or promoting existing workers.
Law firm Peninsula reported that 80% of UK managers admitted to discriminating against those with regional accents. The US economist Daniel Hamermesh found that attractive people earned on average $230,000 more per lifetime than their less attractive counterparts. Yet another study found that job applicants with African-American sounding names were 50% less likely to be called for an interview than applicants with Anglo sounding surnames.
Statistics like these are alarming, but if you’re in the early stages of your career, and unlikely to be making recruitment decisions, why is it important to know about them?
It comes down to what you can bring to the inclusivity conversation. Recruiters want employees who will contribute in a positive way to their workplace culture, who appreciate the importance of diversity, inclusivity, and equality.
Plus of course we all need to be aware of how easily we can upset a fellow colleague by making inappropriate references to their beliefs or personal characteristics, regardless of how unintentional the offence.
What can you do?
Begin by acknowledging that you probably do have some unconscious biases.
Identify those that may be unhelpful, irrelevant, or outdated. Once you have an idea of the areas you could work on, you can even try taking a test. Project Implicit was founded by Greenwald and Banaji, and offers free Implicit Association Tests across 14 different areas, including religion, age, gender and disability.
Try to avoid making snap judgements or instant assessments of other people. Focus on being curious, and aim to learn more from each interaction, rather than merely confirming your pre-determined beliefs. Be more open-minded.
And you can actively educate yourself. Curate your media feeds to include a diverse range of people and pursue the perspective and stories of those who are different from you. There are also specific reading lists you can try such as this one.
Take the time to learn the correct terminology around diversity too. For example Stonewall has a glossary of terms for sexuality here, and the website Racial Equity Tools has one for racial issues here.
The main thing is to recognise that you are human so you probably do have some unconscious biases. Part of being human is working on the problems that such biases may create, and the world can be a better place when you simply open your mind to it.