Section 3. Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
There is now an increasing awareness that unconscious bias influences key decisions in the workplace and can account for some of the lasting inequalities that are evident today. This section will provide a context on how unconscious bias works; the way the brain processes information and makes shortcuts in doing so and how it affects decision-making within the context of leadership. It will also discuss strategies required to interrupt that brain processing and prevent it having a negative impact on our behaviour and decisions. In general, we will give you the opportunity to know yourself - establish what situations allow your own unconscious biases to affect your ability to make objective decisions.
The section is divided into five subsections - Related research on unconscious bias, Understanding unconscious bias, Addressing unconscious bias; some case studies; personal reflections; and additional materials comprising critical evaluation of the role of unconscious bias and outcomes of unconscious bias .
Related research and literature on unconscious bias
In September 2013, the UK Equality Challenge Unit published a literature review, Unconscious bias in higher education . Areas covered in the literature review include:
- Key psychological theories related to unconscious/implicit bias
- Review of research on the impact of implicit bias on decision making, behaviour and actions
- Methods and techniques for reducing unconscious/implicit bias
- Summary of recommendations
Understanding unconscious bias
There is clear evidence that women are underrepresented in senior leadership and management positions at higher education and other research institutions in Europe (Morley, 2013). This is widely acknowledged to be a challenge in the sector and does not only result from the issue of attracting minorities. This section shows that part of the problem is in our mind: a collective, unconscious bias that not only affects the makeup of the sector, but also affects the level of participation by both women and men in decision-making.
Unconscious or implicit bias?
These terms describe broadly similar biases and are often used interchangeably. They do, however, have slightly different meanings, as shown in the definitions below (ECU 2013):
Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically and are triggered by the brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences.
Implicit bias refers to the same area, but questions the level to which these biases are unconscious, especially as we are being made increasingly aware of them. Once we know that biases are not always explicit, we are responsible for them. We all need to recognise and acknowledge our biases and find ways to mitigate their impact on our behaviour and decisions.
Might you be biased?
We all possess some biases, which to a greater or lesser extent form part of our natural 'fight or flight' instinct adapted by the brain as a self-defense mechanism.
As a leader/manager, do you think your judgement or the decisions you make are influenced by what a person looks like? For example:
Gender - Yes [ ] No [ ]
Age - Yes [ ] No [ ]
Race - Yes [ ] No [ ]
Disability - Yes [ ] No [ ]
Religion - Yes [ ] No [ ]
Other personal characteristics - Yes [ ] No [ ]
Please specify... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Most of us like to think that we treat everyone fairly regardless of these characteristics.
However, we often make instant decisions based on what a person looks like and our own beliefs and biases.
The gateway to minimising or overcoming the impact of unconscious bias is to acknowledge its existence.
You can discover your own implicit bias by taking the Implicit Association Tests
Created by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, Implicit Association Tests [IATs] measure unconscious bias and investigate thoughts and feelings that exist outside of our conscious awareness and control. The underlying principle of IATs is that people have differing levels of positive and negative connotations with different groups of people.
IATs measure automatic associations between concepts (e.g. white vs. black people) and attributes (e.g. good vs. bad). They do this through timing people's responses to different pictures and words and it rests on the premise that easier pairings (i.e. faster responses) are more strongly associated than more difficult pairings (i.e. slower responses).
There is controversy and debate around the accuracy and capabilities of IATs; how to identify and measure unconscious bias and how to identify its impact in behaviours and decisions. It is important to emphasise that the debate is focused on the test's methodology and capabilities and not on whether implicit bias exists.
Addressing unconscious bias
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Below are some of the psychological studies where implicit bias has been shown to have an impact.
Spend some time reflecting on where this could have an impact in your place of work.
Spend time discussing the examples that people raise and consolidating what unconscious bias is, how it impacts on our behaviour and decisions and why this is important in higher education.
Reflect on the case studies provided and discuss the situation with another leader in the higher education sector or another research institution on the following areas:
- where could unconscious bias have an impact?
- how can policies and processes reduce biases impacting on your decisions?
- how can individuals involved in making decisions manage their biases throughout the process?
Science faculty's subtle gender biases favour male students - Moss-Racusina et. al. 2012, PNAS
- This article is a randomised double-blind study ( n = 127). The application materials of a student for a laboratory manager position —who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—were rated. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. Male applicants were also selected for a higher starting salary and more career mentoring. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent. The results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.
Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality - Gaucher D, Friesen J, and Kay A C, 2011, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- This paper proposes that gendered wording may be an unacknowledged, institutional-level mechanism of inequality maintenance. Archival and experimental analyses were undertaken to demonstrate that gendered wording, commonly employed in job recruitment materials, can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations. Results indicated that job advertisements for male-dominated areas employed greater masculine wording than advertisements within female-dominated areas. No difference in the presence of feminine wording emerged across male and female-dominated areas. When job advertisements were constructed to include more masculine than feminine wording, participants perceived more men within these occupations, and importantly, women found these jobs less appealing. The results confirm that perceptions of belongingness (but not perceived skills) mediated the effect of gendered wording on job appeal.
A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants - Schmader, 2007, NIH Public Access
- Letters of recommendation are central to the hiring process. However, gender stereotypes could bias how recommenders describe female compared to male applicants. In this study, text analysis software was used to examine 886 letters of recommendation written on behalf of 235 male and 42 female applicants for either a chemistry or biochemistry faculty position at a large U.S. research university. Results revealed more similarities than differences in letters written for male and female candidates. However, recommenders used significantly more standout adjectives to describe male as compared to female candidates. Letters containing more standout words also included more ability words and fewer grindstone words. Research is needed to explore how differences in language use affect perceivers' evaluations of female candidates.
Below are excerpts from senior leaders in higher education in the UK context sharing their perceptions of the impact of unconscious bias on career progression of academic women.
Professor Shirley Congdon, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), University of Bradford.
Professor Diana Anderson, Professor of Biomedical Science and Established Chair, University of Bradford
Professor Brian Cantor, CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of Bradford
Choose from the following open learning materials taken from different cultural contexts:
Unconscious bias as an obstacle for developing gender equality issues in academia
"Subject of Study", set in a hypothetical university in Turkey, demonstrates the discursive ways for marginalising gender equality issues and women's perspectives in academia by leaders in higher education institutions.
The story in this video has been based on narratives of academics interviewed by Genovate AU team. The video has implications for gender equality issues in different cultural contexts.
Think about the following discussion questions based on the scenario in the video.
- What are your views concerning the content of the discussion by senior academics making decisions on the research topic of junior colleagues?
- If you were a junior academic, what would you think of this approach to choosing a research topic?
- If you were chairing a meeting, in what ways would you assist the junior colleague in choosing an appropriate research topic?
Outcomes of Unconscious Bias
This is a part of the video recording of the interview with Prof. Gulay Toksoz from Ankara University Women Studies Centre. The underlying factors behind the lack of gender diversity in academic leadership in the particular context of Turkey, as well as transcultural contexts, are discussed in this video.
The focus of the learning from this section is that we make all kinds of assumptions about people without even knowing that we are doing it, based on stereotypes, our cultural environment and personal experiences. This has significant impact on both our high-level decision-making and our smaller, more subtle behaviours. Although our conscious brain is being rational, our unconscious brain is still impacting on how we perceive and treat people and this impact is more significant than we realise.
It can be hard to acknowledge your own biases. By being receptive and keeping an open mind and being willing to accept that we are all biased, you can consciously act in ways which can balance your own preferences.
It is not straightforward to detect bias and egocentric bias can mean that it is hard for us to see our own faults. However, by breaking the links in the way we process and interpret information we can reduce our unconscious biases. The key is in acknowledging that we have unconscious biases and managing them so that they do not impact on our decision-making and behaviour.
- Bias: is prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
- Bias Incident: a discriminatory or hurtful act that appears to be motivated or is perceived by the victim to be motivated all or in part by race, ethnicity, colour, religion, age, national origin, sex, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Discrimination: actions based on conscious or unconscious prejudice that favour one group over others in the provision of goods, services or opportunities
- Dominant Culture: the cultural values, beliefs and practices that are assumed to be the norm and are most influential within a given society
- Identities: Our identities are who we are as individuals, including our personal characteristics, history, personality, name and other characteristics that make us unique and different from other individuals.
- Implicit Bias: occurs when someone consciously rejects stereotypes and supports antidiscrimination efforts but also holds negative associations in his/her mind unconsciously
- In ‐ group Bias: the tendency for groups to "favour" themselves by rewarding group members economically, socially, psychologically and emotionally in order to uplift one group over another
- Marginalized: excluded, ignored or relegated to the outer edge of a group/society/community
- Oppression: results from the use of institutional power and privilege where one person or group benefits at the expense of another; oppression is the use of power and the effects of domination
- Prejudice: a preconceived judgment about a person or group of people, usually indicating negative bias
- Privilege: a right, license or exemption from duty or liability granted as a special benefit, advantage or favour
- Safe Space: refers to an environment in which everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves and participating fully without fear of attack, ridicule or denial of experience
- Sexism: prejudiced thoughts and discriminatory actions based on difference in sex/gender, usually by men against women
- Silencing: the conscious or unconscious processes by which the voice or participation of particular social identities is excluded or inhibited
- Social Identity: involves the ways in which one characterises oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognises or accepts governing everyday behaviour
- Social Justice : is both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.
- Stereotype: blanket beliefs, unconscious associations and expectations about members of certain groups that present an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or uncritical judgment. Stereotypes go beyond necessary and useful categorisations and generalisations in that they are typically negative, are based on little information and are highly generalised.
- Tolerance: acceptance and open ‐ mindedness to different practices, attitudes and cultures; does not necessarily denote agreement with the differences.
- Abrams, D. (2010) Processes of prejudice: theory, evidence and intervention . Equality and Human Rights Commission, London.
- Abrams D. & Houston, D. (2006) Equality, diversity and prejudice in Britain: results from the 2005 national survey . Equalities Review. Cabinet Office, London.
- Agerström, J. & Rooth, D-O. (2009) 'Implicit prejudice and ethnic minorities: Arab-Muslims in Sweden'. International Journal of Manpower 30: 43-55.
- Allen, TJ., Sherman, JW. & Klauer, KC. (2010) 'Social context and the self-regulation of implicit bias'. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 13(2): 137-149.
- Allport GW. (1954) The nature of prejudice . Perseus, New York.
- Amodio, DM., Harmon-Jones, E., Devine, PG., Curtin, JJ., Hartley, SL. & Covert, AE. (2004) 'Neural signals for the detection of unintentional race bias'. Psychological Science 15(2): 88-93.
- Apfelbaum, EP., Norton, MI. & Sommers, SR. (2012) 'Racial colour blindness: emergence, practice, and implications'. Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(3): 205-209.
- Asendorpf, JB., Banse, R. & Mücke, D. (2002) 'Double dissociation between implicit and explicit personality self-concept: the case of shy behaviour.' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83: 380-393.
- Devine, PG. (2001) 'Implicit prejudice and stereotyping: how automatic are they? Introduction to the special section'. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81: 757-759.
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- Greenwald, AG. & Banaji, MR. (1995) 'Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes'. Psychological Review 102(1): 4-27.
- Schwarz, N. (2000) 'Emotion, cognition, and decision making'. Cognition and Emotion 14(4): 433-440.