Small Steps to Help Mitigate Unconscious Bias

I care passionately about unconscious bias—and as much as I’d like to think that I’m truly unbiased, I know that’s not the case. None of us are. And that’s a problem.

It’s a hot term, “unconscious bias”…but what is it?

It refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. A lot of us like to imagine that we’re open-minded and progressive—in some ways we are—but we’re all a lot more biased than we’d like to admit.


Because, as Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia points out: at any given moment we’re being faced with 11 million pieces of information. Eleven million! But our brain can only process about 40 pieces of information at once, so it creates shortcuts using past knowledge to make assumptions.

With the number of choices we face every day, it would be overwhelming if we had to consciously think about every single piece of information. So our brain bypasses our consciousness.

It’s partially our brain’s fault, sure, but we’re not off the hook. When we talk about unconscious bias, we need to really see what the problem is and how we can make progress in this area. How we can break through stereotypes and use diversity awareness to create a culture of inclusion?

Study after study after study has shown that diversity leads to better outcomes. The American Sociological Association found that a workforce with employees of both genders and varying racial backgrounds
resulted in positive business outcomes:

  • Increased creativity and productivity
  • More innovation
  • Higher revenue and profits

Which sounds great, and maybe we can achieve it. But we’ve got to mitigate unconscious bias if we’re going to get there.

The biggest challenge of all, of course, is that our world views and our biases are ingrained in our psyche and cultivated from a very young age. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg believed that by the age of three, children identify by gender. They are dressed in pink or blue. They are told which toys they should play with. They are even socialized differently. Boys are socialized to play in large groups and engage in rough and tumble play, while girls play in small, intimate groups and practice cooperative play.

Think of a boy who falls off a bike. He’s more likely to be told to shake it off and get back up on that bike. A little girl who falls off the bike is more likely rushed to and asked, “Oh, are you okay? let’s get you a Band-Aid.” Already, at such a young age, we engage with children a certain way based on our bias about gender.

And it only gets worse as we age

Unconscious bias follows us through life and gets a lot of help along the way. We label people by race, gender, age, sexual orientation, married or single, children or no children, intellectual ability or disability…just to name a few. Society and media play a big part in shaping labels and stereotypes that we knowingly or unknowingly buy into.

For example, when you see someone wearing glasses, the assumption might be they are smart and nerdy…and if they’re a nerd, they must be introverts. And this may influence the way you engage with that person. But is everyone wearing glasses smart or introverted? Maybe…but probably not.

By labeling, we classify a person or thing in a way that is often inaccurate or restrictive. We put people in roles and then expect a certain pattern of behavior from them. We often treat them differently as a result.

The result? A system of dominated and dominators, which typically remains for generations. There’s a stigma about being different. But if we didn’t have labels, would there be a stigma for those who don’t conform?

The Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford found that the number of women musicians in orchestras went up from 5% to 25% since the 70’s. Why? Because when musicians were placed behind a screen while they auditioned, the focus shifted from what they saw to what they heard, and the percentage of women increased as a result. When the gender label was removed, the orchestra gender balance improved.

Even Google’s doodles were once guilty of unconscious bias. According to a research report by the Spark Summit, 15% of doodles highlighted white men. Fewer than 5% celebrated women of color.

But so what?! Why did it even matter? Because they had a responsibility to help increase the visibility of women and minorities. Having this representation matters and is important in influencing what each of us believes is possible. Those very people who are underrepresented just might be the ones needed to solve major problems and come up with critical answers. And that’s why someone noticed. Awareness was the first step.

As our culture changes, it’s time to acknowledge our biases. But let’s be realistic—we won’t remove them completely. Some bias is good, after all. But when we don’t remove the biases that make others inferior or deviant, we lessen our chances of changing.

Speaking of change, it’s not going to happen overnight.

How do we start interrupting bias?

There are four key areas to consider when we talk about unconscious bias:

  • Awareness
  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Action

Awareness is the foundation of breaking through unconscious bias. Awareness was the key to getting more women of color represented in Google’s doodles!

The great thing about awareness, is that once you see it, you cannot unsee it. We need to stand back from ourselves and look at our cultural values, beliefs and perceptions and ask ourselves questions like:

· Why do we do things in that way?
· How do we see the world?
· Why do we react in a particular way?

Notice how many times you walk up to a group of people and say “Hey guys” … or when you think twice about where you sit in a public place and hold yourself accountable. Try to break the patterns that are biased or keep you in your comfort zone.

Knowledge is information gained through experience or education.

Can we continue to shift further away from stereotypes by creating new and repeatable experiences so that we can “unlearn” what we have been taught?

Learning is hard. Unlearning is even harder.

Diversity Skills are competencies that allow people to interact with others in a way that respects and values differences. Diversity skills may include flexible thinking, communication, and teamwork. These skills are necessary in accommodating multiple lifestyles and needs.

But beware. It’s hard to build these skills—especially if you use traditional approaches.

Studies have shown that the brain can experience selective retention. We do not remember all the information we see, read, or hear, even minutes after exposure to it.

The more exposed we are to other groups of people, the less likely we are going to feel biased against them. Engage with people who are different. Seek them out! Try to embrace their point of view. Or at least try to understand where they’re coming from. Strive to have thoughtful and courageous conversations about diversity.

And slow down. Bias loves when we have to make decisions under pressure. It isn’t called a snap judgement for nothing!

In fact, when I talked with a friend about this she laughed. She told me about a time when she was starting a new job. Things were going well until she opened her mouth and spoke—with an accent. The guest she was assisting immediately started speaking louder and slower as if maybe she couldn’t understand English.

Before they knew she had an accent…all was good. Afterwards? Loud and slow. Because their assumption was that an accent equaled a poor understanding of English. Clearly more skills needed to be developed there.

Finally, action. We are hardwired toward having this tendency to be biased. If we don’t act, nothing will change. Think of a group that you may have had a bias towards. Maybe a male teacher, a female pilot, a young doctor. Now, imagine a positive interaction with that group. Research has shown that simply visualizing a situation can create the same behavioral effects as if you actually experienced it. So start by imagining, and then declare your intentions for change.

I heard a TED talk recently where the speaker mentioned she was on a flight and heard a female pilot on the intercom. She was excited to hear and thought, way to go! A female pilot! But as soon as the plane hit some turbulence and she heard the pilot’s voice again, she instantly found herself wishing the pilot was a man. Why? Is a male a better pilot? Or was this her unconscious bias roaring its head in a moment of fear?

She suddenly realized her bias and she experienced both perspectives of an accomplishment and a threat. The fact still remained that the pilot was a woman and—in order to arrive at her destination—she had to let the bias go and trust that the pilot was trained and skilled enough to fly that plane, regardless of whether they were a woman or a man.

You don’t have to start a movement. You just have to start.

And by doing something, you can inspire, influence, and empower others to achieve a common goal—to replace biases with the truth. The next time you catch yourself placing a label or making an assumption, immediately challenge yourself to replace it with reality. No matter where you are and how you feel about diversity and inclusion, we can make a difference together when we take small steps of action.