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 about unconscious discrimination 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 applies stereotyped roles overlooking individuals. They comes to us via our experience of social norms and gender schema.

About Unconscious Biases

Gender is just one type of unconscious bias.

Other types of unconscious bias, like racial bias, ageism or disability are similarly ‘created’. We see others around us whom we judge to be similar (gender, age, skin colour and so on). Overtime we create unconscious (and conscious) ‘shortcuts’, ideas that we associate with groups of people. These mental shortcuts can serve us badly and prevent us from seeing a particular individual, a particular situation. Devine (et al ,2012), conceives of bias as mental habits so we have the potential to ‘break the bias habit’.


Unconscious bias, also called implicit 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 ‘male’ 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.

In 2019, two young researchers in Cork, Ireland, Ireland carried out a series of workshops with 376 primary school 5-7 year olds to to determine how early gender stereotyping can be identified. They found:

  • Just over 50 % girls drew a female engineer.
  • 96 per cent of boys drew a male engineer.

“Gender stereotypes are particularly strong amongst boys” (Professor Joe Barry, Public Health and Primary Care, Trinity College for Health Sciences).

How Do We Acquire Stereotypes?

The short answer is, from those around us.

How Wide Spread Is Unconscious Gender Bias?

Try a riddle on those around you. Most people have unconscious bias.

How Do Gender 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 incorrect 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.

More Unconscious Bias Riddles

  • A blind beggar has a brother who died. What relation is the beggar to the now-deceased brother? (‘Brother” is incorrect.)
  • 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”.
  • An employee leaves work to attend their spouse’s annual marketing team dinner as their +1. The finance team was not invited but the most senior company employee at the dinner table is the CFO.

Actions For Individuals

Awareness -> Motivation to Change -> Practice Alternative Approaches

Actions for Organizations