As organizations continue to grapple with inequality and its many causes, unconscious bias has emerged as one useful concept to be tackled by DE&I training initiatives. However, it’s an idea that has met with a degree of controversy. In this article, we examine five common myths you may hear from skeptics and offer five practical ways of challenging your own biases.
5 Myths About Unconscious Bias You May Have Heard
Myth 1: “I Don’t Have Any Unconscious Biases”
It goes without saying that the whole point of an unconscious bias is that it cannot be easily identified and reckoned with by the person who holds it. Even those who consider themselves (or are widely considered) introspective, actively unbiased, and supportive of every social justice cause going, must accept that nobody is 100% aware of or in control of what they think and do.
Scary as that may be, it’s just how the human mind works. We constantly make quick decisions based on limited data and pre-existing patterns. It’s a process that has kept us safe through the ages. The important thing is that we recognize how those biases come into play in situations that have nothing to do with personal and collective safety—and everything to do with excluding certain groups.
Myth 2: “I Know What My Unconscious Biases Are”
While it’s possible to gain a sense of our biases, it’s unlikely that you know the exact extent of all of your biases.
There may be certain groups who remain a blind spot or unknown factors that may make your biases more or less severe. Biases aren’t static—we may develop them over time, just as we may overcome them. Unconscious biases may well run contrary to our conscious beliefs and values, and counter-intuitively can be directed at our own groups. We must be prepared to learn new things about our biases, and be prepared to educate ourselves and counteract them.
Myth 3: “Since Unconscious Bias Is Unconscious, There’s Nothing I Can Do About It”
While the exact nature of our unconscious biases may elude us, the certainty that we all have them actually makes it easier to limit their potential influence. It’s less about addressing specific types of unconscious bias, and more about making certain processes less susceptible to unconscious biases in general.
Thankfully, there’s actually a good amount of advice on how to do this in situations such as talent management and hiring, provided we’re committed to tackling the problem.
Myth 4: “As Everyone’s Biased, We Can Stop Talking About Racism and Sexism”
We may all be equally susceptible to forming different forms of bias, but those biases aren’t equal in their potential to negatively impact people’s lives. Even if every woman in a business is biased against men, and vice versa, the fact that those men are statistically more likely to hold higher positions of authority from which to enact those biases still remains a factor to be highlighted, debated, and counter-acted.
Biases (unconscious, conscious, and systemic) are not easy points of discussion. Nonetheless, now is the time to have these difficult conversations in our communities and organizations.
Myth 5: “We Don’t Need to Worry Anymore About Conscious Bias or Bigotry”
It’s important to stress that any increased focus on unconscious bias doesn’t signal that the war for equality has somehow been won and people are simply looking for a new battleground. You don’t need to look very far to find abhorrent acts of conscious bias and bigotry in the news, and smaller acts of verbal, physical, and emotional violence against people haven’t gone away.
Unconscious bias isn’t a separate issue—it’s the rest of the iceberg lurking in the depths, and until we start chipping away at it, we’ll never be rid of the dangers it presents.
5 Great Ways to Challenge Your Own Unconscious Biases
1) Through Awareness
Though our unconscious biases are difficult to detect, any attempt to tackle them should begin with an attempt to become aware of them. Start with an honest assessment of who you feel ‘comfortable’ around—and by contrast, who doesn’t give you the same feelings of certainty and safety. Those feelings may not be easy to acknowledge, but once you do, you’re on your way to exploring the kinds of hidden assumptions that everyone is prone to.
2) Via Empathy
Remember the old adage “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging them”. Regularly pausing to consider someone else’s perspective is key, but your idea of how someone may think or react is still secondary to their own words on the matter. In a work context, you should always take some time to talk about career goals, relationships, or hobbies before getting straight to work—empathy is fuelled by actual knowledge and a positive relationship built over months and years.
3) Increasing Exposure
Odds are good that the people you know best and are most comfortable with are those that resemble you in most, if not all, ways. Giving other groups the same chance to break down barriers and to be on an equal footing to your usual groups is a simple matter of exposure. You cannot learn about differences between yourself and other groups, differences within those other groups, and break your reliance on stereotypes and assumptions without mixing with a variety of people outside your traditional circle.
4) Conscious Use of Micro-Affirmations
Whereas microaggressions are everyday slights and comments that result from our unconscious biases, micro-affirmations are subtle or small acknowledgments of an individual’s value and accomplishment. Consciously leaning more heavily into public recognition of others, always positively attributing work to a person, commending them unprompted, and introducing them to others with enthusiasm, can help offset and reduce our microaggressive actions.
5) Learning Positive Stereotypes
Considering that stereotypes are just part of the way our minds work, it’s important to proactively challenge and change the stereotypes our minds have access to. Imagine alternatives to the negative stereotypes you do have, consider the diversity within your social and work groups, as well as examples drawn from sport, politics, and entertainment that break free of negative stereotypes.
The greatest myth of unconscious bias is perhaps that a “one and done” training approach will ever be enough to permanently change an organization’s patterns of bias. Progress comes only from embedding the training—ensuring that conversations continue to be had following a session, lead by managers, and further prompted by resources such as video nudges timed for maximum effect.
Along with an environment where everyone feels empowered to call out and correct clearly biased statements and actions, a proactive, positive, and ongoing approach to unconscious bias will help you create a fairer workplace.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Affirmity blog.