When we think about how to create more inclusive environments, many companies turn to addressing the issue of unconscious bias. However, oftentimes, they do so without a clear understanding of what it is, the types which may exist in their organization, and their goals/expectations about how to address it. Further, they expect that one training session will be sufficient enough to eliminate it from their organization. While training can certainly be helpful, it should certainly not be a one-off, and should be supplemented with coaching of key leaders and periodic evaluation of progress.
Unconscious bias, also called implicit bias, is when individuals demonstrate a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair, but the individual is not aware that she is doing so. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences. Oftentimes, we use bias as a shortcut to make decisions, to deal with the overwhelming amount of information (e.g. 11 million pieces per second, 40-50 pieces absorbed, and only 7 pieces are processed) we encounter at any given time. As such, bias as a whole is not bad, especially if we are attempting to navigate complex decision-making (e.g. driving a car). However, it is when that bias is applied in such a way to disadvantage one group or individual, that it becomes problematic. It is even more dangerous when we are not aware of that bias, which is the issue we face in addressing unconscious bias.
Types of Unconscious Bias
Some who may not be as well briefed on the term believe that unconscious bias is just one thing.
However, there are different types of unconscious bias, which may be operating at any given time within an organization. Some of the most common types of unconscious bias are:
- Affinity – when one favors individuals that share similar background characteristics (e.g. race, gender, profession) to themselves; for example, one study found that resumes with ”typically White” (e.g. Emily, Ashley) names received 50% more callbacks for interviews than those with “typically Black” (e.g. Lakisha, Jamal) names, even though their resumes were exactly alike.
- Confirmation – when one only pays attention to information which supports one’s hypothesis, while ignoring information which refutes it; for example, a study showed racial bias in the evaluation of legal writing- supervising lawyers were more likely to perceive African-American lawyers as having subpar writing skills in comparison to their White counterparts. This 2014 study found that a diverse group of partners who evaluated a memo found more errors in the “African American” associate than the “White” associate, even though the memos had the exact same number of errors; they found more errors, because they expected to do so.
- Actor-Observer – when one attributes another person’s behavior to personality flaws but their own behavior is attributed to environmental factors; for instance, if a co-worker is late, you may believe it is because she is lazy, but if you are late, you blame mass transit issues.
- Belief in a Just World – belief that if something bad happens to a person, it is her own fault, since the world is as a whole is fair and just; for example, a 2017 study found that when interviewing BIPOC candidates in a law firm, White partners confirmed that they would have additional conversations outside of the hiring committee without BIPOC committee members, where they discussed their resentment regarding their perceptions that pressures for diversity & inclusion were ”driving standards down” to accept “diversity hires” as a result of affirmative action.
- Maternal Wall – mothers were 79% less likely to be hired compared to an otherwise identical candidate without children.
- Tightrope – pressure to behave in stereotypical ways; in one 2017 study, a woman’s perceived competence dropped by 35% when she is deemed to be assertive or forceful, which are viewed as masculine behaviors; 50% of White women attorneys, including senior leaders also reported being tasked with more of the office housework (e.g. taking notes in meetings, providing emotional support) as compared to 26% of their White male counterparts.
Forms of Unconscious Bias
When exploring unconscious bias, it is important to know that it can take many forms, including racial, gender, gender identity, age, and sexual orientation. By understanding the forms of unconscious bias that are prevalent in your organization, you will be able to create the right interventions.
Forms of Unconscious Bias
Addressing unconscious bias is important on both an individual and an organizational level.
- Unconscious bias affects your judgment, influences your decision-making, and can have an adverse impact on your colleagues and direct reports.
- Contributes to high turnover costs
Can negatively impact brand long-term reputation
Affects staff engagement & retention
Unconscious bias may not be operating at all times within your organization. However, there may be specific triggers which activate it. The four most common triggers:
- Task – certain jobs are associated with specific people. For instance, a firefighter is deemed to be a more male-oriented job and a nurse is thought to be more of a female-oriented job. As a result, if you are recruiting for certain roles (e.g. Finance- another perceived male-dominated industry), unconscious bias may be activated, and you risk overlooking qualified female candidates who don’t match your initial notion of what a typical successful candidate looks like.
- Numbers – when you are faced with reviewing a large group (e.g. job candidates), biases are triggered as you attempt to hone in on viable candidates, which may result in affinity bias dominating the process, and you identifying only individuals who share similarities with you (e.g. race, gender, alma mater).
- Clarity – when you lack information, you may fill the gaps with what you expect from biases. For instance, if you see a gap in a woman’s resume, you will assume that she took time off to start a family, which may cause the Maternal Wall unconscious bias to be activated against working mothers, even if there may be another reason (e.g. sabbatical) for the gap.
- Perceiver – when you are in a heightened emotional state (e.g. stressed), the attention of the conscious mind is compromised, leaving the unconscious bias to be activated. If you are tired & stressed after a long day of work duties, you may not be as aware of your biases when interviewing a job candidate, letting affinity or confirmation bias creep into the process.
Disrupting Unconscious Bias Means Preventing Stereotype Application
Stereotypes are a widely held, but fixed and oversimplified, image or idea of a particular type of person or group that represents a prejudiced attitude or an uncritical judgment. For instance, the belief that women are too emotional to be effective leaders is a stereotype, which prevents many remarkable women from getting the appropriate leadership opportunities. The primary challenge is that bias activates stereotypes, and it is difficult to stop the brain from doing so. As a result, the goal in addressing unconscious bias is to disrupt it, first by bringing it into awareness, and by preventing stereotype application. That is, while we may find it impossible to stop stereotype activation, it is the application of stereotypes in decision-making situations (e.g. hiring) and other actions that we can prevent and should address to disrupt unconscious bias.
To reduce unconscious bias in your organization, you must understand the forms and types which are present in your workplace, bring them into organizational awareness, and work to teach team members how to prevent stereotype application in decision-making situations.
To learn more about how to address unconscious bias in your organization, sign up for a free consultation here to discuss how Dynamic Transitions can meet your needs.