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What does unconscious bias even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Relating back to a previous post on effective leadership, seeking, recognizing, and reprogramming our unconscious biases is imperative to creating truly equitable and inclusive workplaces, communities, and countries. But what does unconscious bias even mean?

Let’s start by generally understanding “bias” and its forms. Bias is often defined as a prejudice in favor or against one thing (person, group, place, institution, paradigm, etc.) in a way that is considered unfair or partial. Biases can come in many forms, from the “status quo bias” which tends to prefer conditions to stay the same, to the “omission bias” which is the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse than equally harmful inactions.

Biases can be conscious (explicit) or unconscious (implicit). Unconscious biases are far more prevalent than conscious prejudice. Everyone holds them. We can sometimes see them play out in others but are often unaware of our own. They come up automatically, outside of our control, when our brains are quickly reading a situation and making fast decisions. 

Where unconscious biases fails us, collectively, is when we allow them to influence how we respond to and treat one another. How we allocate resources or hire and promote staff. How we pick a seat on a bus or place to live. Unconscious bias, if not explicit bias, is often at the root of racial discrimination, gender disparity, wealth gaps, and general inequity. 

Where do we even begin? We must start by really examining and recognizing our subconscious stereotypes. And that requires honesty with ones self. Luckily, there are trainings, tests, articles and books a-plenty to help get you started.