Are we still unconsciously incompetent? Bias and stereotyping

Posted in: Bloggery

Lately, the concept of unconscious bias has come into the forefront of diversity advocates in the workplace. Previously we would see conscious bias at work – especially several decades ago when women were clearly being denied opportunities and blatantly discriminated against based on their sex – like the stereotypes in the TV series Mad Men. This type of conscious bias is easy to see; it can be addressed and it may be diminishing, but this does not mean bias has been eliminated.

Don’t get me wrong, bias can be good. All of us, myself included, are biased, whether we admit it or not. We are hard wired to make unconscious decisions about what is safe, what is harmful and what to avoid. It’s only when these biases lead to poor judgements or harsh treatment of others based on irrelevant facts such as gender that bias gets in the way of good decision-making.

Why is it important to be aware of our biases? Because biases especially if they are unconscious, can cause blind spots that lead us into making short cuts about facts and make poor or unjustified conclusions.

Let’s look at some of the research around unconscious biases that continue to disadvantage women. In one 2009 study[1], over 100 university psychologists were asked to rate the CVs of Dr. Karen Miller or Dr. Brian Miller, fictitious applicants for an academic job. The CVs were identical, apart from the name. Yet, strangely, the male Dr. Miller was perceived (by both male and female reviewers) to have better research, teaching and service experience than the female Dr. Miller. Overall, about three quarters of the psychologists thought Dr. Brian was hire-able, while less than half had the same confidence in Dr. Karen.

We also like people who are like ourselves, and this often restricts appointing people to teams who are different. We often hear “they just did not fit our culture”. What that may mean is that they are not like us. We tend to favour job applicants who mirror ourselves. In a male dominated work environment and with the lack of women role models at the top in many organisations, you can start to see how unconscious bias can restrict the ability of women to apply for and succeed in roles that may be considered male jobs.

The first step to overcoming unconscious bias is to become aware of it.  Notice your language – are you favouring one gender in the way you describe certain roles, which groups do we feel more comfortable in, do we go out of our way to encourage dissent and different views?  Once you are aware of you biases you can take deliberate action to overcome them.

Many organisations are now including unconscious bias in their training programs for leaders. That’s one good indicator that such an organisation truly values and accepts diversity.  It suggests that this is likely to be a workplace that truly values the unique contribution that women have to make.
[1] Steinpreis, R. E. Anders, K. A., and Ritzke, D. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee(1999). The Impact of Gender on the Review of the Curricula Vitae of Job Applicants and Tenure Candidates: A National Empirical Study,

This month’s blog has been written by Norah Breekveldt, Director of Macfarlan Lane.