Breaking Stereotypes: Unconscious Bias

Diverse group of people looking at a computer

Written by Alexis Faber, Founder of In-Sight and Business Consultant and Trainer helping companies with people reading, understanding body language and effective decision-making

We all have stereotypes and most of us may have experienced being the object of “stereotyping” by others. Why do we have stereotypes? Are they helpful to us? Having insights into our mental processes and unconscious assumptions is a useful way to help us move away from stereotypes in the workplace and embrace diversity and inclusion.

Why do we have stereotypes?

Put simply, stereotypes help us operate effectively in a complex, fast-paced reality. Scientists have discovered that our mind receives 11 million bits of information from our body every second;
however, it is estimated that the mind has a maximum capability of processing less than 50 bits per second. These stimuli are sensory from our body’s contact with the environment, such as sounds, vision and the sensation that all of our bodies experience at any given time. In addition to sensory stimuli, the mind must also process and interpret information from ideas and thoughts produced by our own mind or by other people. Therefore, at any given time, our mind has to make sense of an overflow of complex information whilst supporting us in carrying out whatever activities we are undertaking.

To complicate this process further, the information we receive from the world may be incomplete or fast-changing. The tendency and preference of the human mind is to construct a narrative and build causal relationships of events, whether it has all the requisite information or not to do so. To do this, it needs to fill the gaps in knowledge and understanding. Stereotypes help with this. For example, when most people hear the sentence “my friend is an airline pilot”, the image that their mind conjures up is that of man in uniform. The sentence is actually unclear as to the gender of the “friend”, but the mind tends to want a clear understanding of the situation and will tend to “smooth over” uncertainties and gaps using stereotypes and unconscious bias. Similarly, when hearing the sentence “a nurse helped me with my recovery”, for many, the image that is unconsciously created is that of a female nurse, even though the sentence is ambiguous as to the nurse’s gender.

In these two examples, the mind was not provided with enough information to construct a narrative, but its tendency was to construct one anyway by making assumptions using the stereotypes of a nurse and an airline pilot stored in its unconscious. This is an automatic process and can be informed by prior experience (e.g. seeing many male pilots and not many female pilots) or by association (e.g. by making an implicit assumption that women are caring and the nursing profession is caring, therefore the nurse must be a woman). These automatic, unconscious assumptions are bias when it comes to thinking processes relating to gender.

Are stereotypes and unconscious bias helpful?

Although they help our mind operate more efficiently, the problem with stereotypes and unconscious bias is that they are not based on rationality and logic. Just because one may have seen
mostly male pilots, it does not follow logically that all pilots must be male. Most of all, it does not follow that all pilots should be male or that men are intrinsically better pilots than women. The same applies to the unconscious stereotypes of female nurses. Therefore, although stereotypes may simply be an accident of our personal or collective experience,
without realising, they tend to be treated as if they were rules to be followed. Thus, the problem with stereotypes is that, although they are not based on rational, reasoned thinking, they tend to be automatically, unconsciously applied in making decisions about people, including in relation to their skills and competence. This includes the recruitment and promotion of employees and of managers.

Stereotypes and ourselves

Without knowing, sometimes we can apply these stereotypes and unconscious bias to ourselves. For example, we may assume, without realising, that a pilot, a scientist, a surgeon, or an IT expert has certain characteristics. Yet these characteristics may not be based on the rational assessment of what those professions entail. Rather, they may be based on prior associations or stereotypes related to what these professions which were traditionally performed by men. Some women and girls may incorrectly assume without realising that these professions are not for them or they may not have the “right” characteristics to do them.

Breaking stereotypes: unconscious bias and the self

It would be a shame if anyone’s career choices or career’s progression were to be influenced by irrational assumptions. Do not let this person be you! So long as unconscious bias and assumptions remain unconscious and out of awareness, they can interfere with our thinking processes and our perception of ourselves and our peers. They can put obstacles in our way and can prevent us from fulfilling our aspirations and achieving our potential. By learning what stereotypes and unconscious bias we tend to have and how they influence our thinking, we can learn to identify them and disable their effect in making decisions. Therefore, they are not likely to hold us back. For example, if I were to discover that I unconsciously assume airline
pilots to be male, tall, and with a deep voice, I could ask myself: what makes me assume that a pilot should have these characteristics? Which of these characteristics are actually necessary or useful in being a pilot?

By learning about how mind works, we can start to see and disable our stereotypes and unconscious bias. We can learn to weaken their effect on our perception of ourselves and of others by assessing them rationally.

Breaking stereotypes: unconscious bias and the recruitment and promotion process

Unconscious bias can also interfere with decision-making in the recruitment and promotion processes in organisations. In other words, the people making decisions about the workforce may be affected by gender unconscious bias without realising. An organisation may therefore be basing its workforce decisions on irrational, unconscious assumptions.

Training in unconscious bias for those involved in recruitment and promotion decisions can help companies in hiring and retaining the best, most talented people assessed using reasoned and rational criteria, as opposed to irrational, unconscious stereotypes. In addition to training on unconscious bias, blind recruitment practices and interview panels with a diverse composition are other ways of sidestepping stereotypes.

Breaking free of stereotypes and the effect of unconscious bias is important for ourselves and our careers, as well as for the organisations we work for. We do not want irrational, unconscious
assumptions to influence our success and the success of our organisations. We also do not want organisations to be run partly based on irrational considerations. Understanding and warding against the effects of unconscious bias on our thinking processes is therefore essential in achieving diversity and inclusion in practice.

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