Unconscious Bias: Where Does It Come From?

Birgit Pohl
6 min readMay 22, 2021


Everybody comes with their own island of wisdom and knowledge they have gathered throughout their years. It contains what we know about science, people, religion, gender, and culture, and how we see them.

What Is Unconsciousness?

The term unconsciousness was first found in the 18th century and defined by the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and it eventually ended up in the group of German psychologists such as Freud.

If we ask Freud, who was an expert in deeply rooted memories and habits, he would say, unconsciousness is about repressed feelings, hidden memories, habits, thoughts, desires, and reactions. Memories and emotions that one does not want to consciously face. Because painful thoughts are to be avoided.

If you ever wanted to see, what lies in your unconsciousness, try out an association technique and connect a random word with another and that one with the previous one, etc. See what happens!

Many researchers suggest that unconscious bias occurs automatically as the brain makes quick judgments based on past experiences and background. As a result of unconscious biases, certain people benefit and other people are penalized. In contrast, deliberate prejudices are defined as conscious bias (or explicit bias). — Vanderbilt

Gendered Unconscious Bias

When we speak about gender, we have a certain persona in mind, which is male or female and they come with certain associations. We know how a woman is supposed to look like and behave and the same counts for men, too. It is quite a difference, isn’t it?

We learn it from the way we grow up and what we are being taught by media, parents, schools, friends, and our surroundings.

How The Media Influence Us

The media is one of the biggest influencers. It creates a certain image of a persona. Let’s talk about the housewife. It’s a stay-at-home female person who has a husband who works for money. They have children together and the child-care is taken care of by the housewife. In addition to that, she keeps the house clean and cooks so that everyone is fed.

Her attitude is described as “caring”, “warm”, “silent”, “soft”, “tender”.

The media describes the man as a strong individual who brings the food home. The movie industry also was pretty strong in creating heroic figures in men only slowly shifting to a more balanced distribution of female representatives for heroes.

The masculine attributes are described as: “strong”, “leading”, “courageous”, “independent”.

Given the association technique above I described, you see in which direction it goes. What do you associate with men and women?

How Our Parents And Grandparent Influence Us

Previous generations like our parents and grandparents teach us the responsibilities we have as women and men.

Find a wealthy man, bear us grandchildren, be a good mom.

Many women stop their careers after they graduated. Also, many women stop and even completely quit working after their first child.

We teach women, that it is irresponsible for them to have children and a job and a life at the same time. They start feeling guilty and therefore do not even consider having a career next to their family life. Sometimes they even give up their friendships, because there is no time for it.

“Dear Working Mother,

You are doing a great job. And your kids will turn out just fine despite the hours you spend away from them. Truly.“

Dr Margie Warrell in Forbes

How The Industry Influences Us

With dolls and cars in the early stages of our life, we put our children into the gender split. We are still not used to men wearing make-up and skirts because we think it is a woman thing.

“Skirts now appear to be intrinsically allied to femininity. My forthcoming research addresses the innately masculine role of men’s suits, as outlined by historian Anne Hollander, and suggests that women in power often adopt a trouser suit when they wish to be taken seriously in a traditional gender order which puts powerful men at the top.” — RTE

We also don’t see women as a target group for financial products, though there are excellent female founders who created great products around them. We sell cars to men and forget that women seek mobile independence, too. MINT education, we say is for men, though this started to be a field women did before.

As a woman, I can tell you, these are all very interesting fields.

How We Associate Words With Gender

From the early start of our life, we teach children how women and men should behave and define what “strength” means in relation to gender.

Strength is a gendered word.
It is a masculine attribute.
So what happens when a woman is strong?

Warmth is a gendered word.
It is a feminine attribute.
So what happens when a man is warm?

We build up a certain gender stereotype by the way we use words and associate them with gender. The research Exploring Human Gender Stereotypes with Word Association Test, Yupei Du, Yuanbin Wu, and Man Lan at the Department of Computer Science and Technology, East China Normal University, has used a simple word association to create an empirical study. They have asked participants to associate gender pairs with their associations, which they divided into a feminine and masculine rated group of words. Also, they have rated how strongly word is associated with masculinity and feminity. The result is a fascinating graph:

A snapshot of how stereotypes propagate in word association graph. The darker color on nodes means higher bias. Colored arrows indicate how gender information propagates. Image from Exploring Human Gender Stereotypes with Word Association Test

If you like to see more, download the program and set it up locally.

What happens if you see a warm man and an assertive woman?

Or a transgender woman or a transgender man?
What happens if you see a non-binary person?

What attributes would these groups have? From a logical point of view, we need to break up our gender-stereotypical thinking. Not only do we push women into guilt, but also men into pressure.

“I felt the pressure to prove I was manly” — Bernie Concotta

And we forget all the gender nuances we have as human beings.

We need to question our status-quo because obviously nature has given us so many more possibilities than we admit to ourselves. we may have grown up with binary gender associations, but the truth is that we do not only have binary genders, which I described above. We also have characters within all groups that don’t fit the current norm.

If you stick too much to a worldview you might end up being disappointed, because someone doesn’t fit into it.

All too often I have seen people fighting and trying to push people into the fit of their worldview. Assertive women should be “nice” and men have to be strong. Which results in men struggling to access their emotions and becoming depressed and women being frustrated. These are very common therapy reasons. Don’t even start to try to push the LGTB group into a gender norm.

To Sum Up

We have talked about where the unconscious bias is coming from and what influences us and is nurturing the unconscious bias. We also have talked about associations, which are very helpful to check ourselves.

Most importantly, we talked about groups that don’t fit into the biases, because we need to realize they need to be seen, too. We need to be aware, that these groups exist. If we don’t, we only will be surprised and perhaps even judgemental about their behavior, which we try to avoid on a daily basis.

We should start accepting ourselves as humans first with the ability to be as diverse as the colors.



Birgit Pohl

Your leadership coach and knowledge curator | https://birgitpohl.com | @devbirgit 📸 Instagram, 🐦 Twitter, 🎥 Tiktok