Learning for Leadership: Uncovering Unconscious Bias

Dec 08, 2015

Recently I attended a Women’s Leadership conference with a small group of women from work.  The conference was a day of “inspiring speakers, leadership learnings and networking.” On the day of the conference I was extremely busy and thought to myself, “another leadership conference – really, is this going to be worth most of the day away from the office?” Haven’t we all had such a thought? “What am I going to learn that I haven’t already heard?” However, we had planned to attend as a team and share our thoughts after the conference, so off we went.

And here is the thing….I am very grateful I attended! Many leadership concepts, even those I knew, that pertain to my own leadership journey were presented in new and different contexts. It reminded me that time spent in reflection and away from the day to day details of work is a great way to rejuvenate oneself and put issues we may be facing in perspective.

One leadership concept, in particular, made me take note. The CEO Champions of Change panel members discussed “unconscious (or implicit) bias.” Every day we make decisions without realizing it. According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, “implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.”

Two examples of unconscious gender bias include: a study through the Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford found that the number of women musicians in orchestras went up from 5% to 25% since the 1970s—a shift that happened when judges began auditioning musicians behind screens so they could not see them and a study out of Yale University asked science researchers to rate two candidates for a lab manager position—a male and a female—both with the same qualifications. Participants, including both men and women, rated the male candidate as more qualified and were willing to pay him a higher starting salary than his female counterpart.

In these two examples the judges and managers had an unconscious bias towards women which affected the women’s careers, future earnings, and positions within organizations. What about age bias? Have you ever thought “that person is too old (or too young) for that job?” Why – what do you know about that person before thinking that thought? I’ve used gender and age as examples of unconscious bias but ask yourself about how you think about people who differ in race, ethnicity, appearance, and other personal characteristics. 

One’s unconscious biases, unless brought out into the open and acknowledged, can affect hiring decisions, promotions, pay increases, and even intangibles like office culture or employee relationships. I came away from the conference with a challenge to myself – and I challenge you to think about how these unconscious biases affect your own leadership style and work environment. I am working on uncovering my unconscious biases and intentionally and thoughtfully inspecting how they may be affecting my decision making and leadership style. Right now, this is a work in progress but I will report out in a future blog.

So, the day of the conference started out with a less than positive thought about what I might learn but now, for over a month I am continually referring back to what I learned and sharing this information. When opportunities like this leadership conference arise, please take advantage of the opportunity to continue to learn, even though you may be “too busy.”

- Gail Cederberg


To learn more about yourself and your potential biases check out Project Implicit; where there are many quick tests that ask you to respond to specific words and word pairs to test biases, not just gender bias. Project Implicit is the product of a team of scientists whose research produced new ways of understanding attitudes, stereotypes and other hidden biases that influence perception, judgment, and action. Project Implicit translates that academic research into practical applications for addressing diversity, improving decision-making, and increasing the likelihood that practices are aligned with personal and organizational values.

Women on the Rocks is a blog that discusses the successes, challenges, and various tools for women in the science and engineering profession. While Women on the Rocks is a gender specific blog, its purpose is to provide a space for everyone in the science and engineering profession to have honest discussions about their experiences in the field. The blog is written by Willy Morrison and Gail Cederberg, PhD, and is edited by Rebecca Wegscheid; for their bios please see our introductory post. As the series grows WotR will be including pieces from guest authors (maybe you!). Your comments are welcomed and encouraged.

Interested in contributing to Women on the Rocks? Let us know in the comments section below and a member of the Women on the Rocks team will contact you.

While this blog is hosted on the American Engineering Testing, Inc. website, the views and opinions expressed here in the blog and comments are those of the authors and not necessarily held by American Engineering Testing, Inc. itself.

Category: Women on the Rocks

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