Women In Business - April 2016

The Invisible Wall: Unconcious Biass

A few years ago, researchers at Yale University sent out a fictional application to science professors at top U.S. research universities asking them to evaluate an applicant. There was one variation in what the professors received—the name of the applicant for some was Jennifer and, for others, it was John. Both male and female professors showed a significant bias toward John in their evaluations of competency, hireability and salary to offer. This study came ten years after a study at Harvard University that asked students to share impressions of an entrepreneur—named either Heidi or Howard—with similar results. These studies disclosed unconscious bias—a bias that you are unaware of and, therefore, unable to control. This is not just a gender bias issue. Studies have confirmed that unconscious bias applies to numerous other factors including race, nationality, height, weight, accents and beliefs to name a few.

So much of our attention in society has been on conscious prejudice and discrimination, but in reality, unconscious bias and the micro-behaviors they cause are much more prevalent and insidious. Unconscious biases are blind spots that override conscious intentions. They can shape how you see and act toward others, and how you see yourself and ultimately perform.

How unconscious bias toward others plays out. It is my intention and belief that all people deserve to be treated fairly. Yet, what if I have an unconscious bias toward a particular organizational unit and I am in a meeting with Mary who is from that unit. When Mary speaks, I may subtly cut her off, make discounting facial expressions when she expresses an opinion, or criticize her ideas; however, I don’t do this when others speak. If I have stature in that meeting, all the other attendees now subconsciously register a question about Mary’s credibility. In the future, these other attendees may unconsciously mirror my behaviors toward Mary in other meetings. If any one of these attendees is putting together a work group, it is unlikely that Mary’s name will come to mind. I was clear about the difference I wanted to make. I was certain that it would benefit the organization and our employees, and it did. My influence and impact grew tremendously—so did my confidence and courage. I was doing more than contributing to a project or program; I was helping to reshape the culture of the organization and the capacity of its leaders.

All of this is happening at the unconscious level, and the pattern of behaviors described are called “micro-inequities.” Even if you consciously roll your eyes at a comment a person makes in a meeting, it is very unlikely that you intend or are even aware of the unconscious chain reaction set off and the damage it causes to the person’s credibility.

How unconscious bias affects self-perceptions and performance. Stereotypes influence unconscious beliefs. For example, there are common stereotypes that women are not as good in science and math as men. Studies have shown that if you reference this gender bias before giving a math test, it will negatively affect how women perform on that test. Studies have also shown that if you ask both men and women to imagine walking in the shoes of a woman before taking a test of spatial abilities, both men and women will do more poorly than if you ask them first to imagine walking in the shoes of a man. When an unconscious bias is triggered, you are primed to behave accordingly—you basically live up to the expectation of that bias. Driving convictions that build confidence are not about self-righteousness, judgment, pleading or intimidation. The most impactful driving convictions are not motivated by the desire to receive more recognition, make more money, gain status or build a bigger empire. In contrast, driving convictions are most effective in achieving positive outcomes when they are connected with a genuine desire to achieve a greater good with passion and compassion. Driving convictions don’t have to be profound. They can be as simple as the desire to bring about greater collaboration, listening or demonstrating respect.  If you want to be more confident or if you feel lost and want to find yourself, then uncover your convictions. Connect with that core part of you that is rock solid, and pivot from there.

How to offset the impact of unconscious bias. Here are specific things you can do to diminish the power of unconscious bias:
• Use positive gestures to offset micro-inequities. For example, if you observe someone cutting another person off in a meeting, let the group know that you would like to hear what that person has to say. If a person’s ideas are discounted overtly or through subtle facial gestures, say something positive about the idea or the fact that you appreciate the person’s willingness to share it.
If you are cut off or interrupted, simply say, “I am not finished. I would like to make one more point or explain my position.” If you catch someone rolling his or her eyes at what you have said, you can say, “Do you disagree?” Calmness in both of these cases is key because you want to demonstrate confidence without triggering or escalating conflict.
• Explore your own biases. Are there some people you tend to be more uncomfortable with or make judgments about? If so, reflect on what may be at the root of your discomfort or judgments. Seek out exposure or experiences to reframe your bias from negative to positive. Using my example of having a bias toward people from a specific organizational unit, I could look for positive role models from that organization to get to know better.


If you want to uncover your unconscious biases go to this website: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. There are a series of short tests you can take for free.

We all have unconscious biases, and we are all givers and receivers of micro-inequities.
So this is not about them, it is about us. There is much each of us can do everyday
to make visible and tear down this wall that holds so many back.

Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.