As part of our ongoing Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, the DockYard team recently participated in a “Hallway Talk” on unconscious bias. It was a thoughtful discussion between all of our team members to explore what unconscious bias is and how many of us have experienced it in our own lives.
Conscious vs. Unconscious Bias
When thinking about unconscious bias, it is important to first understand and define what conscious bias means:
To be aware of, intentional, and responsive.
As you can see from the definition, conscious bias is done knowingly and intentionally. It may even be in response to a specific experience. In society, there are many laws to avoid conscious bias (discrimination) from occuring.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Kansas State University Office of Diversity and Outreach defines unconscious bias as:
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.
Pillars of Unconscious Bias
From this definition, there are four overarching themes that demonstrate how unconscious bias occurs in our everyday lives: implicit bias, social stereotypes, physical appearance, and unconscious beliefs.
Implicit associations can be defined as things that are indirect, inferred, and/or suggested. These associations are developed over the course of one’s lifetime. Everyone is exposed to indirect and direct encounters that influence us (i.e. family, friends, books, TV, movies). Implicit associations are pervasive and we all have some level of unconscious bias based on one’s life experiences.
Social stereotypes are a fixed set of attributes associated with a social group (i.e. gender, age, color of skin). A question we can all ask ourselves is “What generalizations have been created in society about certain groups?” As human beings, we strive for belonging and feel a need to be part of a group. In doing this, we are differentiating one group from another and creating these stereotypes.
Physical appearance is a term that can be described as “lookism” or “beauty bias.” This is essentially appearance bias against another person based on their physique, style, etc. Some questions we can ask ourselves related to the topic include: Do you feel differently about an individual because of their physical appearance? Do you draw conclusions about an individual based on their style, before you meet them? Do you make assumptions about an individual because they exude masculinity or femininity?
A social beauty company Univia completed a study among their employees to understand how beauty bias affected their organization. One of the most interesting results from Univa’s surveyed employee group is that 73% believed appearance directly affected an employee’s competency to do their job. The survey also revealed:
- Appearance influences client perception and company image (90%)
- Appearance affects employee confidence (85%)
- Appearance affects employee competency (73%)
- Beliefs are the set of principles or ideologies that help one interpret reality. This can include religion, political affiliation, spirituality, and philosophy. While unconscious beliefs guide the subconscious self governance each of us has in our mind, without our full awareness. One interesting thing to note about unconscious beliefs is they may not necessarily align with our belief systems and are often directly related to implicit associations we create based on the experiences we’ve accumulated over a lifetime.
Another dimension of bias is cognitive bias, which involves using our implicit associations to categorize the world around us. By nature, our brains are trying to save energy, so we often take in information and process it according to our individual knowledge base to contextualize and understand new information, people, and experiences.
This is useful because it allows us to make decisions faster and process information accurately. However, cognitive bias can be harmful when information is processed by using social stereotypes that may not reflect the reality of an experience.
We all have implicit associations, cognitive biases, and both conscious and unconscious biases. Together, these mental and emotional tools can help us as we strive to make sense of the incredibly diverse and complex world we live in. While it is easier to shape our conscious biases, there are ways to be more intentional about the unconscious systems that guide us, including:
- Avoid making decisions based on stereotypes and try to take in each individual interaction;
- Look at data/criteria rather than the person;
- Reprogram associations by exposing yourself to diverse people, media, places, and things; and
- Allow/search for multiple viewpoints.
Our minds are malleable, meaning it is possible to change our ideals by taking the time to create new associations and essentially reprogramming the brain. Bringing awareness to how your mind works and analyzes information is just the beginning of this process.
To understand this topic and draw on your own experiences, I encourage you to consider embarking on your own personal journey to seek out ways to proactively help our world be a better place!
Here are a few resources to help you as you get started:
- University of California, San Francisco: Office of Diversity and Outreach
- K-State Research and Extension: Implicit Bias & De-biasing Strategies in Action
- Nature Research: Implicit Stereotypes and the Predictive Brain: Cognition and Culture in “Biased” Person Perception
- SHRM: How to Avoid Beauty Bias When Hiring
- Psychology Today: Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes
DockYard is a digital product agency offering custom software, mobile, and web application development consulting. We provide exceptional professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. With a nationwide staff, we’ve got consultants in key markets across the United States, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Austin, New York, and Boston.