What is Unconscious Bias, and Why Should You Care?

A mother and her 5-year-old child are casually going about their day when the daughter suddenly points out an individual in the crowd.  

“Mommy, that man is evil.” 

“Why do you say that, Ashton?” 

“Because he is tall and wearing all black.”  

It’s fascinating how children come to conclusions with such certainty, so much that you cannot convince them otherwise. They learn black means scary. Tall means leader. Glasses mean smart. Although their reasoning matures over time, these filters remain lodged in their mind as unconscious biases. And we all have them.  

Unconscious bias in Diversity Equity and Inclusion is the attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. They are automatic and ingrained in our social psyche. We often carry these biases without realizing it. These biases exist on an individual and institutional level and can impact DEI efforts if left unaddressed. 

 But where did they come from?  

Some biases are a result of our personal experiences. In Ashton’s case above, she could have learned that wearing black and being tall means evil from her immediate family or culture. Perhaps she had a negative experience with someone who is tall, so now she’s automatically suspicious of all tall people.   

Other biases can come from the messages seen in the media. A typical example is if we see black or Latinx individuals portrayed as criminals more often than not, we’re more likely to associate people who look like them with crime. 

 These biases can impact our daily lives in ways we may not even realize. For example, employers may be more likely to hire someone who looks like them, or landlords may be more likely to rent to families with children of the same race.  

In a DEI context, unconscious bias can have a negative impact on underrepresented groups. If hiring managers only interview and hire people who look like them, it creates a cycle of inequality. The same goes for things like promotions and pay raises. Unconscious bias can also lead to microaggressions, which are small but everyday slights, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative messages to underrepresented groups. 

So how do we address unconscious bias in DEI? 

So what can you do to reduce unconscious bias in your workplace? Here are a few tips: 

 1) Be aware of your own personal biases. This is the first and most crucial step. We all have biases, and there’s no shame in admitting that. DEI training can also help you identify your own unconscious biases. 

 2) Educate yourself and others about unconscious bias. The more we understand the issue, the more we can do to mitigate its impact. Encourage your team to be more aware of the times when our biases might be coming into play. For example, your hiring managers can take a closer look at their candidate pool to see if it’s truly diverse. If not, why not? Are you only considering candidates who come from the same schools or have the same background as you? 

 3) Encourage open communication about DEI in the workplace. This can help create an environment where everyone feels comfortable talking about their experiences with bias. 

What are your unconscious biases? 

Take some time to journal your own unconscious biases. Walk yourself through the last week of work and ask yourself: 

 “Was there a moment when you projected your unconscious beliefs onto a personal or work situation?” 

 “Where did you learn that belief?” 

 “Is this belief based on a stereotype or experience?” 

 “What is a new belief that you can affirm to replace the old bias?” 

 Be honest as you answer these questions, and you’ll find resolve as you move forward with greater awareness. By becoming more aware of our own biases and taking steps to address them, we can help create a more inclusive world for everyone

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