Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: The Facts You Need to Know

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: The Facts You Need to Know

Unconscious bias is everywhere. Today, only 25 percent of professors are women; a significant disparity in itself. Running the keyword ‘professor’ through Google image search, 90 percent of results returned are images of white men, widening the gap still further.

Scientists are trained to be objective, yet the results of a recent Yale University study suggests that even they are not impervious. The study revealed that both male and female scientists were disproportionately more likely to hire men, considering them more competent and paying them up to $4,000 a year more than their female colleagues.

Workplace Bias, Gender, and COVID-19

The events of 2020 have driven greater awareness and debate on the issue of bias, particularly in terms of gender bias. From job losses, to food insecurity, to gender-based violence, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. A survey conducted by Care International, a humanitarian agency, revealed that 55 percent of female participants had either lost their jobs or had their income reduced as a direct result of the pandemic.

Helen Pankhurst is a women’s rights activist, following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother, the suffragist leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. As an advisor to Care International, she points out that a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women was predicted as early as March 2020. She urges policymakers to hold themselves accountable for equity, filling the data gap, and investing in women leaders—things that feminists have demanded for generations.

There Are Many Types of Workplace Bias

Stereotyping is not restricted to gender. In one University of Chicago study, researchers mailed thousands of identical job resumes to employers with openings, randomly selecting an assortment of stereotypical white names and stereotypical African American names. The team discovered that applicants with “white” names were roughly 50 percent more likely to receive a call back for interview than those with stereotypically African-American names.

From emojis to advertising to the education system, racism, sexism, and other forms of stereotyping are endemic in every aspect of society, including the workplace. Even forward-thinking organizations are not immune, with unconscious bias manifesting in various forms. Here are just some of the types of unconscious bias individuals and organizations can practice:

1. Affinity Bias

People have an innate tendency to gravitate towards others who share their own perspective. Also known as similarity bias, companies hiring for ‘culture fit’ are likely to fall prey to affinity bias.

In terms of staff morale and workplace harmony, it may seem intuitive to hire a team that shares similar backgrounds, experiences, and interests. Nevertheless, this tactic can be extremely limiting, with studies proving the reverse to be true.

Research shows a direct correlation between increased diversity and improved employee retention. Diversity makes employees feel accepted and valued. It also enhances staff loyalty. Not only that, but promoting diversity enables organizations to present themselves as socially responsible and contemporary, boosting reputation and brand.

2. Ageism

A reported 58 percent of workers aged 50-plus begin to be victims to age bias. At that point in their careers, finding a new job becomes increasingly challenging. Employers tend to value younger applicants more highly, irrespective of comparative lack of experience and expertise.

3. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias describes a human tendency to look for and favor information that confirms your own pre-existing views on a particular topic. It can be incredibly harmful in a workplace context. It leads to impaired decision-making, driving ill-informed hiring choices.

4. Conformity Bias

Conformity bias is driven by peer pressure. In terms of hiring decisions, it occurs where teams get together to review candidate applications or conduct interviews and, following an exchange of opinions, a decision-maker abandons their own beliefs in order to uphold the status quo. Individual opinions can become diluted in a team setting. Nevertheless, the opinion of the majority, or the person who shouts loudest, is not always right.

5. Gender Bias

According to one study, a male job applicant is approximately 1.5 times more likely to be hired than a female counterpart sharing the same credentials. All too often, men receive preferential treatment in the workplace, be it in terms of recruitment, career advancement, or remuneration.

6. The Halo Effect

The mention of an elite university or high-profile company on a resume holds sway with many recruiters. When interviewers are so dazzled by this snippet of information that they ignore everything else, it is known as the halo effect.

Driving Diversity and Closing Skills Gaps

With skills gaps widening in many industries, particularly STEM-related sectors, the need to drive diversity has never been greater, addressing shortcomings to attract and incentivize representatives from underrepresented demographics.

About the Author

Joanna RileyJoanna (Jo) Riley is an entrepreneur, investor, and advocate in technology, and is currently the CEO and Co-Founder of Censia. Jo has a highly experienced background in building and scaling companies, which she attributes to her deep passion for people and building technologies that allow people to be their best selves. She brings her wide knowledge of the industry to better transform the way enterprise companies hire talent. You can connect with Joanna Riley at @joannakiddriley on Twitter or on Linkedin. Read her full bio here.