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:


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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Case studies

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:

  1. where could unconscious bias have an impact?
  2. how can policies and processes reduce biases impacting on your decisions?
  3. 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


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


A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants - Schmader, 2007, NIH Public Access


Personal reflections

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.

Please click on icon to watch the video Link to Video File  


Professor Diana Anderson, Professor of Biomedical Science and Established Chair, University of Bradford

Please click on icon to watch the video Link to Video File 


Professor Brian Cantor, CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of Bradford

Please click on icon to watch the video Link to Video File 


Additional materials

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.


 Click on icon to watch the "subject of study" video  Link to Video File 


Think about the following discussion questions based on the scenario in the video.

  1. What are your views concerning the content of the discussion by senior academics making decisions on the research topic of junior colleagues?
  2. If you were a junior academic, what would you think of this approach to choosing a research topic?
  3. 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.


Click on icon to watch the video Link to Video File 



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.