Unconscious biases are things we assume, take for granted, and believe are so true we don’t even notice the way they might bias our perceptions and thoughts. We all have them. They come from our personal, socialized experiences throughout our lives. Elements of our lived experience shape what we think of as good or bad, desirable or undesirable, beautiful or ugly, worthy or worthless. We believe that our perspectives are universal, normal, and correct. Unconscious bias can happen on a personal level, in a company culture, or even in a whole country.
One example of unconscious bias is how we perceive professionalism. We each have an idea of what a “professional” looks, sounds, and acts like. The history of professionalism in the US comes from companies where white men were in leadership. If you called for a “business professional” from Central Casting, you’d get some form of a white man in a suit: able-bodied, probably handsome, probably able-bodied, etc. Now that women and people of color are in leadership in companies, it makes sense that what a “professional” should look like is changing. Professional dress might include more than just men’s suits. Gender, age, and of course race might all be different. It also might make sense for professional language to change to include ethnic accents and syntax.
When you become conscious about having harbored an unconscious bias, you can decide that, yes, it does make sense that profesional clothing and language rules might change to include all the kinds of professionals that exist today. When you maintain your unconscious bias, you will argue that professional dress and language is rigidly defined already and to be professional everyone must fit into the predetermined rules.
*Small Business Pro Tip: Encourage employees to take an implicit bias test, like Project Implicit Bias by Harvard University to see where your unconscious biases lie—looking at race, gender, age, weight, disability and sexuality. Ask employees if they are comfortable to discuss their findings in small groups or teams.
- Read: “Women entrepreneurs create fake male partner to dodge sexism” in Fast Company (article, < 10 minutes).
- Watch: Saturday Night Live “Mid-Day News”, where TV anchors make all kinds of assumptions about the race of the person in each story (video, < 5 minutes).
- Unconscious Bias training is available from several different external resources. An example of one resource is Breaking the Bias.
- Read “Black tech CEO repeatedly assumed to be lower-level staff” on Bloomberg (article, < 10 minutes).
- Download and read BuiltIn’s “Guide to Racial Equality in the Workplace.” (written guide, 10-60 minutes)