I was talking to my sister about a recent doctor visit when my 4-year-old son walked over. “What’s her name?” he asked about ‘the doctor.’ This caught me by surprise as the doctor was actually a man. Then I realized that almost all the doctors (and nurses) my son had ever seen were women. I also realized that I personally visualized doctors as men, with white coats over collared shirts and ties. I felt uncomfortable immediately, almost guilty. But had I done anything wrong? After all, I’d seen many female doctors before and believe that gender has no correlation to a doctor’s abilities.

I would argue that no, in simply letting my brain react, I did not do anything wrong. I did not consciously ‘do’ anything at all. This is the nature of unconscious (or implicit) bias. It’s an automatic response from our brain that happens without our awareness, intention, or control. Sharon Jones, president of Jones Diversity, says that 98 percent of the brain works without conscious thought, and all this activity has the ability to influence behavior. In Jones’ words, unconscious biases “will control you unless you control them.”

Though my son’s question exposed a bias, no harm was done. But in other situations, these types of biases can have lifelong consequences. A substantial amount of research has been published demonstrating the impact unconscious bias about race, gender, sexual preference, age, height and other characteristics can have in various domains including the criminal justice system, education, recruiting and healthcare.

So, how are we to address something that is inherently concealed? With awareness, introspection, authenticity, humility, compassion, communication, and most of all, a willingness to act. And there are two courses of action that should be taken: individual development and institutional change.

Addressing Individual Bias

On an individual basis, we can’t change the pervasiveness of our unconscious thoughts, but we can try to unlearn biases and re-wire the content of those thoughts. Studies have shown that implicit biases are indeed malleable.

  • Start by practicing self-reflection. Have the courage to examine your own behavior. At the end of each day, think about your interactions (including the virtual ones). Ask yourself, is this how I would have interacted if this person looked (or didn’t look) like me?
  • As you go about your day, visualize the types of situations you’re expecting (i.e., the doctor you’ll see, the person coming in for the interview, etc.) and expand your possibilities. Add scenarios to the visualization that came by default.
  • Make a conscious effort to diversify your environment. Research has shown that contact is one of the best ways to break down negative biases. Ongoing, positive interactions with individual people of a particular race, ethnicity, or other group can help counteract unconscious biases toward that group. Pursue these relationships.
  • Explore external environments. Social media, news sites and our searches are all built around algorithms that feed you information you want to see, confirming your interests and beliefs about people and the world. Break the algorithm! Listen to a new podcast, pick up a novel featuring characters who are different than you, watch a TED Talk from someone in another profession, or peruse a news source that’s credible but outside your comfort zone.
  • Continue to do these things. Understanding, accepting and changing one’s biases is not an overnight process. Think of it like staying in shape physically. You can’t exercise for one month and expect the results to remain long term. It’s something you need to do on a regular basis to maintain results.

How Employers Can Address Hidden Bias in Institutions

Though we may have the best of intentions as individuals, negative biases are ingrained in our institutions’ processes and cultures. We need to consciously put in place practices to combat this. Review every aspect of the employment life cycle for hidden bias – screening resumes, interviews, onboarding, assignment processes, mentoring programs, performance evaluations, identifying high performers, promotions and terminations.

  • Watch your language. In particular, review job descriptions for gender-bias words. For example, ‘assertive’ and ‘strong’ are considered masculine, while ‘nurture’ and ‘pleasant’ are considered feminine. An analysis by ZipRecruiter found that gender-neutral job descriptions get 42 percent more respondents.
  • Standardize interviews and assessments. While every interview will lend itself to a unique conversation based on the individual’s background, it’s important to ask standardized, skills-based questions that provide each candidate with a fair chance to stand out. Our unconscious impulse is to seek a “mini me” with whom we’ll feel comfortable. If we find someone with that “comfortable” factor or dismiss someone without it, we may overlook a candidate’s key skills or shortcomings. While similarities shouldn’t automatically disqualify a candidate, they shouldn’t be the deciding factor either.
  • Speak up. If someone who reports to you is behaving inappropriately with regard to bias, speak with them directly about it. If it’s someone outside your team, voice your concerns to HR, and they should take appropriate action.
  • Encourage others to speak up. This may be the most important point of all. The more people who speak up, the greater chance of making progress. Encourage open communication and also offer an anonymous, third-party complaint channel.
  • Provide unconscious bias training. Ensure the third party you choose goes beyond creating awareness of biases, to giving strategies to build more equity going forward.
  • Create objective measurements that give collective feedback on the organization’s performance.
  • Distribute stories and pictures widely that portray stereotype-busting images, speaker series, podcasts, etc. For example, replace the wall of the past five white, male CEOs with pictures of successful people of all colors, regardless of whether they worked for your company. Many studies show that the mere positive image of specific groups of people can combat our hidden bias.
  • Again, make a conscious effort to diversify the work environment. The more exposed we are to other groups of people, the less likely we are to have bias against them. For more on this point, see our previous article on The Secret to Diversity and Inclusion.

Combatting unconscious bias can be quite uncomfortable, but the effects of unconscious bias can be much worse than ‘uncomfortable.’ The sooner we start the work, the better chance we have to prevent our unconscious thoughts from running the show.