Unconscious Bias – What Is It?

Everyone has unconscious bias, stereotypes we hold about groups of people but of which we may be unaware. Learn more and test yours.

A Riddle About Bias

A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating theatre, the surgeon pulled away and said: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”.

This is a line break for you to ponder the riddle above before reading on!

The riddle, which considers gender bias, one type of unconscious bias comes to us courtesy of Mikaela Wapman, CAS’14 and Deborah Belle, a psychology professor, both at Boston University. Gender bias assume particular stereotype roles and comes to us via our experience of social norms and gender schema.


Unconscious bias is

“preferences based on perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and belief that are deeply hidden in our subconscious.”

Mary-Frances Winters, in “Diversity at Work” (Deane, 2013)

Test Your Unconscious Bias

With the best of intentions, we all have unconscious bias as you may have experienced above. Test yours here: -> Implicit Bias By Harvard University

Gender Schema

Gender schema are very powerful conceptual frameworks, generalisations about social groups and events, that help us to navigate our messy world. Gender bias may be ‘contained’ within these schema. They “don’t reflect personal values or life experience” Wapman (2014). They are slow to change. One example by Virginia Valian, a Hunter College psychologist notes how people presented with the same CV for a man and a woman (Heidi versus Howard), typically assume the man is more competent.

“Stereotypes are generalizations about groups that are applied to individual group members simply because they belong to that group, and gender stereotypes are generalizations about the attributes of men and women. ” (Heilman, 2012)

Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania :
Anandibai Joshee graduated 1886; Kei Okami in 1889; and Sabat Islambooly in 1890.

For the riddle above the results were the same when a different version was used: a mother is killed, her daughter sent to the hospital, and a nurse declines to attend to the patient because “that girl is my daughter”.

These two examples are particularly interesting in Ireland which had a disproportionate number of women doctors graduating for a number of years. This offers the potential for our ‘doctor’ gender schema to weaken the connection to ‘man’ overtime.

“Eternal vigilance, I think, is the only solution, ….“these [gender] schema do change over time…… but the pace is glacial.”

Deborah Belle, a psychology professor at Boston University.

When Do We Acquire Stereotypes?

The short answer, is young, very young.

How Do We Acquire Stereotypes?

The short answer is, from those around us.

How Do Stereotypes Manifest In The Workplace?

There are a few examples below but we feel confident you will uncover more of your own. And the more aware you become, the more examples of bias you will see.

  • Mothers of young children don’t like to travel with work.
  • New mothers are unlikely to return to work after maternity leave.
  • Fathers don’t mind missing the annual school play.
  • Women are soft and communal.
  • Men are hard-headed and competitive.

Actions For Individuals

  • Test Your Implicit Bias => Implicit Bias By Harvard University
  • Becoming aware of your own unconscious bias, and thoughtfully work to counter act assumptions rather look more carefully at the evidence for each individual, and the individual situation.
  • Try the riddle above on those around you.