Becoming Conscious of Unconscious Bias

by Anita Jack-Davies – January 2019

Unconscious bias is a cancern for all leaders seeking to develop an inclusive workforce (Whelan, 2013). According to Whelan, writing of unconscious bias relating to gender diversity in the workplace, there are two thinking processes: propositional and associative.

a) Propositional – Conscious Thinking
Propositional thinking is deliberate and effortful. This type of thinking is governed by  logic and reasoning

b) Association – Unconscious Thinking
Association enables us to make connections between concepts. When associations are repeated over time, they become stronger and automatic, requiring less effort and thus, becoming unconscious.

We are often not aware of our unconscious thoughts. This is often referred to as being on “auto-pilot”. Unconscious thinking requires little attention and effort, and can be difficult to interrupt or over-ride. Whelan writes, “Because unconscious thinking is extremely fast and is not based on logic or reasoning, it is not ‘fact-checked’. This means people can persist in unconscious thinking that is not congruent with external realities and may even be discrepant from their conscious thinking” (Whelan, 2013, p. 58).

What is Bias?

A bias is an error or inaccuracy in our thinking and are far more likely to occur unconsciously. In the workplace, bias takes the form of:

  • who is acceptable to hire
  • who is acceptable to promote
  • who can “do the job”
  • who “fits in”
  • who deserves a promotion

Unconscious bias also affects our eye contact, body language and conversational patterns which contributes to workplace dynamics. Our unconscious biases most often present themselves in the form of stereotypes. A stereotype is a simplistic generalization about an entire group of people based on an image or an idea. Although stereotypes can be based in truth, often they are oversimplifications.

Research shows that workplaces often provide the conditions for employees to activate unconscious biases since we often need to make quick decisions, complete complex tasks and make quick judgements. It is critical for workplaces eager to implement best practices in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion to examine the role that unconscious bias plays in workplace culture, including:

  • the hiring process
  • the interview process (including reviewing resumes)
  • opportunities for mentorship and promotions
  • assigning key projects to staff

How have your employees responded to unconscious bias training in your organization?