Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Although as scientists we are trained to be impartial, we are no exception to some pervasive prejudices. Only by becoming aware of our prejudices can we work to overcome their effects. But what if our biases are unconscious?

‘Unconscious bias’ is a well-known phenomenon that impacts our behaviour and decisions. It refers to the sub-conscious assumptions and mental filters that affect our decisions and actions without us even being aware of them (see Morley 2011 for an excellent overall discussion on unconscious bias).

Gender bias is one of the key biases – together with ethnicity, sexual identity, cultural background, and religion. Our gender expectations are set very early in life. Men tend to be associated with ‘agentic’ traits (eg, task-oriented, focused and driven) while women tend to be associated with ‘communal’ traits (eg, empathetic, gentle and kind). They are given segregated toys, colours, activities, and taught to value different personal attributes and attitudes. Being a girl is used as an insult. Female assertiveness is branded “bitchy”. In science, and academia, we are not immune. We may think we are judging based on “excellence”, but everal studies show that men and women will judge CVs, papers, teaching and even student essays to be superior when labelled with a male name.

We are all subject to societal biases and prejudices. Thus, only by becoming aware of these issues can we work to overcome their effects. Unconscious gender bias can disadvantage women in numerous ways: it can influence hiring decisions, our expectations of how different people should behave, and even how we treat colleagues in meetings.You can take the Harvard Psychology based Implicit Bias Test to see what your biases are.

Evaluating our status and progress

The Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) is currently engaging in self-evaluation and a range of activities to become more aware of, and address, unconscious bias. The centre is composed of over 75 associates and 116 members, of which about 55% are women.


Some of my amazing colleagues I (led by Alienor Chauvenet) compiled some of the findings of these exercises in an article in Decision point HERE

The Key take-home messages are: 

  • Unconscious gender bias is alive and well in the discipline of science
  • Building awareness works: Becoming aware is an important step in overcoming unconscious bias
  • Ridding ourselves of our unconscious biases is a difficult, long-term task that takes continuous evaluation

More work to do

I have been working at the University of Hawaii for the past 6 months or so, and was lucky enough to be hired into a department which has gone from 2 to 7 female faculty in the past few years – without a quota! Having female instructors, supervisors and role models will certainly help, but there are still hurdles to be overcome.

Hope Jahren of “Lab Girl” fame is based at UH, and her recent book has drawn attention to the ongoing plight of women in science. The book has also been invaluable –  triggering a slew of conversations where experiences were shared – in my experience, one of the best ways to generate empathy, understanding and progress – among peers of all gender identities. Yet, some of the comments astounded me – from stories of inappropriate sexual conduct, to lack of opportunity to reviewer comments


Tackling unconscious bias head on

Ali would probably be upset by my choice of male dominated sports analogy, but as an athlete, I run like a girl.


Here is a list of actions you incorporate into your day-to-day life to reduce the impacts of unconscious gender biases:

1. Work the ratio: aim to have equal numbers of women and men present at workshops and working groups, as well as presenting plenaries or other seminars. In some disciplines, a higher ratio representative of the proportion of women in the field is appropriate.

2. Pass the opportunity along: if you are invited to participate in an event you can’t attend – recommend a woman to take your place (men are often the default).

3. Employ best practice strategies for gender-equitable recruitment, including:

a. Have well-defined selection criteria
b. Make the first round of the selection process blind: keep names off applications
c. Use structured interviews and evaluate every individual based on their actual merits relative to opportunity, rather than perceived correlates of merit.
d. Avoid group think – individual interviews before panel discussions prevent dominant personalities and bias influencing all panel members’ perception.

4. Encourage women to lean in – at all levels (and conversely, men to lean out when appropriate): this includes for promotions and awards.

5. Build the culture: create a workplace culture where people are encouraged to speak out against bias, and it is safe to do so.

6. Allow for flexibility: workplaces which allow for flexibility in working environments, e.g. working hours, travel commitments, options for maternity and paternity leave, will benefit both women and men.

7. Manage your questions: seminar chairs can manage question time to encourage equal numbers of questions, and engagement, by both men and women.

D for do not defend

If we find ourselves using the phrase “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way” then we need to stop, reflect and reconsider our perspective.

Again, it may take a conscious effort to accept that the inequity is real. A great example of this is the uncritical use of the term “merit”. People believe they are making judgements based entirely on “excellence”.

But several studies show that men and women will judge CVs, papers, teaching and even student essays to be superior when labelled with a male name.

Bystander Training

In addition to recognition, in oneself, and others the hardest thing can be saying something about it – both when such bias manifests passively – e.g. through selection or opportunity, or more overtly, in inappropriate language and behaviour.

It is obviously hard when directed at you – though techniques have been developed that if institutionalised more strongly, could be exceptionally useful. Science and academia like to pride themselves on being less rigid in their institutional structures that some other institutions. While these can be valuable, in some cases this prevents creating strong institutional norms that can prevent misunderstandings – such as the “red light” system employed in many Armed Forces, and Police Departments .

Bystander Training is one way that we can help each other to create a new cultural norm, where there is absolutely no place for prejudiced behaviour. This training makes us aware of the expression of unconscious biases, and how and when we could intervene. By conducting the training across institutions it reinforces and empowers minorities, and importantly, their  more numerous allies, to act and intervene to ensure that prejudiced behaviours and actions do not create hostile cultures where people feel unsafe to come forward do not proliferate.

One important component in creating a safe to speak out workplace where issues can be addressed early, is to avoid the four D’s 

The Four D’s 

Denial – outright dismissal of the existence of inequity. If you aren’t sure (perhaps becuase you are in a position of privilege (e.g. male STEMM faculty in this study) you can always look for empirical evidence 

Diminish – We develop coping mechanisms, it can be tempting to look down on those who haven’t or is tempting to dismiss the worries of our juniors and peers. But inequity leads to emotional trauma, lack of self-confidence, imposter syndrome, and more. So, its essential that we treat such worries seriously.

Do not defend – We want to accept that people are inherently good, but although this is an important principle for empathising among cultures, disciplines etc, if you find yourself defending inappropriate actions.

D for do not derail the discussion – Derailment is when we think that we are being empathetic or trying to get attention ourselves. We may, inadvertently or deliberately change the topic, potentially derailing and diminishing the discussion – especially of the consequences are less severe.

Inclusivity for all

While I focused on overcoming gender bias, these tips and tricks are useful for more generally overcoming unconscious bias, when resulting from differences in ethnicity, sexual identity, cultural background, religion, or socio-economic background.

References and Useful Sources

Morley K (2011). Getting to grips with unconscious bias. http://www.genderworx.com.au/getting-to-grips-with-unconscious-bias/

Moss-Racusin CA, JF Dovidio, VL Brescoll, MJ Graham & J Handelsman (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. PNAS 109:16474-16479.

Woolley AW, CF Chabris, A Pentland, N Hashmi, & TW Malone (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science 330: 686-688.

Johnston, Emma. 2016. How men and women can help reduce gender bias in the workplace. https://theconversation.com/how-men-and-women-can-help-reduce-gender-bias-in-the-workplace-62041

A biobliography of recent studies:  https://www.hastac.org/blogs/superadmin/2015/01/26/gender-bias-academe-annotated-bibliography-important-recent-studies

Red Light Resources:



Do you have more resources I should include here? Ping me on @ultimatemegs, or comment below.






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