Five ideas to combat unconscious bias

October 2016

Combat unconscious bias

As humans we have many unconscious biases and in organisations our leadership decisions are also subject to them. Gender bias leads to predetermined views of talent, creating inequalities and a loss of ca­­pability and commitment.

Unconscious gender bias prescribes leadership as a male domain and lies at the heart of why men are disproportionately chosen ahead of women for leadership roles, even when managers believe they are being fair.

Gender stereotypes are learnt early, stored in memory and accessed without awareness. Our conscious and unconscious beliefs are often likely to contradict each other, especially when it comes to contentious issues such as gender. Usually, what we say represents our conscious beliefs, while what we do represents our unconscious beliefs. 

Dr Karen Morley, co-founder of Gender Worx - the specialist diversity division of Insync - has researched how unconscious bias can affect the choices of women throughout their careers. Karen has over 20 years' experience in leadership consulting and wrote the 60 page white paper, Unlocking the potential of women at work: a decade of evidence.

At an Insync round table discussion on the topic of unconscious bias with Karen and various leaders and HR professionals, five great ideas emerged:

  1. Having biases is normal; the key is to be aware of what your biases are, as this helps you actively manage them. You can measure your unconscious bias by taking the Harvard Project Implicit test. The Gender Worx website also has some great white papers and working papers on the topic to help you broaden your understanding.
  2. Make the time to deliberate over decisions. This allows you to reduce the likelihood that your unconscious beliefs will bias your decisions. Fast decisions usually rely on unconscious processes which increases the likelihood of bias. Using a colleague as a buddy can help ensure considered decision making.
  3. Awareness raising and training  is best when it's practical, relevant and linked to specific tasks, such as recruitment. One organisation ran unconscious bias training for interviewers just prior to graduate recruitment interviews. The participants could then apply their new knowledge directly as they interviewed the graduates.
  4. Access to aspirational female role models  is important, particularly in male-dominated organisations or professions. One organisation managed this by using a coffee meeting format where a senior female leader regularly met with a group of younger female colleagues.
  5. Actions are the real test, as one of the table groups reminded us, the real test is not talking but taking action. A simple example given was to look at the basics and do them well. For example, review conference speakers and make sure they reflect your aspirational diversity.

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"Getting to grips with unconscious bias"

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Related articles and resources

Survey your organisation

To determine the extent of the unconscious bias across your organisation and the differences in each level and division, find out more about our gender diversity survey.

Right arrow More info about our gender diversity survey


Test yourself

To determine the extent of your own unconscious gender bias, click the following link and follow the instructions. 

Right arrow Unconscious gender bias test