We All Have “Unconscious Biases.” What Are Yours?

Consultant Tanya Odom answers questions about our unconscious biases. These are powerful and often invisible cultural assumptions that inadvertently benefit certain individuals while putting others at a disadvantage. This often leads to gender inequalities in the workplace, such as lack of opportunities, gendered work and gendered career path and so forth.

What is unconscious bias?

Information, attitudes, and stereotypes that impact our decisions at actions. Unconscious biases can be seen as  "blind spots" that we all  have. They are quick and  often inaccurate judgments.

According to the Kirwan Intitute "these biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control." 

Our brain uses short cut to process the large amount of information that it receives at any given moment. These short cuts can be unconscious biases.

We attach characteristics and assumptions about people based on unconscious biases that  originate from our socialization, upbringing, exposure to to people and places, experiences, the media, etc.

What are the impacts of unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases do not always align with our values and beliefs. Since they are unconscious, they are often undetected.

We all have unconscious biases. We have ideas about who we think are "smart," "not ambitious," or who might be best for a certain post, etc.  

One simple example that is often given is when we asked for notes to be taken in a meeting. Who do we turn to? Or, when we think about a doctor, or a unit chief - what image comes to mind?  

Why is it an important topic for international organisations such as IOM to address?

The work of IOM is important. 

Understanding the potential for unconscious bias, and increasing awareness of "debiasing" and mitagation strategies" can help ensure that all IOM employees have opportunities and access, and are contributing their full potential to support the mission of the organization.

IOM like any organization wants to make sure that they are doing the best work, and creating an environment where people work together efficiently, creatively, and collaboratively.

Unconscious biases can form invisible barriers to connection and collaboration.

What can we do to recognize and interrupt unconscious bias as individuals?  As an institution?

The research suggests that we have to acknowledge the potential for bias. 

We can use tools like the Implicit Association Test to assess our biases.

We also have to be aware of the impact of our busy, often stressful, technology filled world. Our "busy brains," and full calendars can often contribute to snap judgments, and the decisions based on our own comfort levels and affinity for some people over others.

We have to be exposed to counter stereotypical images that challenge our implicit stereotypes.

Mindfulness practices have been shown to mitigage unconscious bias.  Allowing time, and taking the time before an interview, conversation, meeting, or presentation could benefit all of us.

Education is important, but we know education alone will not change behavior. As an organization, it is also  important to look at the data internally and see where there might be gaps in representation and awareness. There also needs to be a courageous analysis of systems and processes that have developed historically, and might provide certain people with advantages over others. Accountability is the last very important piece of the puzzle. 

Can you give an example of how unconscious bias is harmful?

Unconscious bias can be present in all aspects of our life and work.  It can be present in interviewing, performance reviews, and in the coordinating of development opportunities. 

Can you give an example of the negative consequences of unconscious bias?

The lack of women and visible minorities in leadership positions is often connected to unconscious bias.

We make assumptions about someone's ability to contribute to a project or mission due to their age; we overlook someone that might have a different work history/life experience than we do. There are many ways unconscious bias can impact a team, unit, or organization.