In today’s workplace, unexamined assumptions, double standards, and invisible barriers, embedded in organizational cultures, constrain opportunities for women. Unconscious gender bias makes it challenging for women to contribute fully to the work and goals of the organization.
What is unconscious gender bias?
Unconscious bias is a tendency to favor or dislike something without really thinking about it. It’s bias – so it is unfair. This bias arises from the unconscious areas of our brain, where most of the brain’s processing is done. Therefore, we aren’t even aware that the bias exists. If someone said we were biased, we’d deny it. It’s that hidden!
Bias helps us make sense of the world because we have so much information coming at at so fast so much of the time. We can’t process it all anywhere near fast enough. So the knowledge and information we already have helps create order out of all that stuff. We need that order to keep going. But unconscious bias gets in our way because it adds a “slant” to what we see and what we know, or what we think we know.
Because bias develops out of our life experiences and our beliefs, everyone has it. Sometimes it is useful, but sometimes it actually hinders us from achieving what we want to achieve.
Unconscious gender bias is a term used to describe the bias which affects women in the world of work. Both men and women may unknowingly have this bias which impedes the overall ability of women to fully contribute to the goals of the organization. Unconscious gender bias involves barriers that arise “from cultural beliefs about gender as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men” (Ely et al, 2011, p.475).
But what are these barriers?
I’m glad you asked! In our research, Leanne Dzubinski and I have identified 27 specific barriers that contribute to unconscious bias. These barriers were identified through two qualitative research studies. I interviewed 26 women executives in higher education, while Leanne interviewed 12 women executives in faith-based non-profit mission organizations. Although higher education and faith-based organizations are quite different, we found that the women executive’s experiences were remarkably similar. This led us to the conclusion that the barriers may be a result of gender and not specific to organization type.
Do men experience unconscious gender bias?
Everyone probably experiences unconscious gender bias to some extent, and men are likely to be affected too. However, our research so far has not involved men. What we can say is that we found that the consistent barriers and bias which women experience affects their ability to advance and succeed in the workplace.
What can we do?
First, be aware that everyone is unconsciously biased. The goal is to become aware of our own biases to the extent possible and consciously choose to act in ways that are unbiased and more equitable.
Here are a few resources which may help you to increase awareness of your own unconscious bias and support women in the workplace.
- Project Implict – Test yourself for implicit (unconscious) bias
- Workplace Ally Tips – Scenarios and solutions to support women in the workplace
- Understanding the Unconscious Mind – How the mind makes snap judgments leading to bias
- What if the world was different than we assumed? – Workplace gender role reversal vignettes