Unconscious bias: What glasses are you wearing today?

Cornelia Ineichen
March 8, 2021
People always see the world through the lens of their own identity. This lens is characterised by cognitive patterns of thought that affect their judgement: unconscious biases. Since these biases are among the biggest barriers to diversity, we have taken today’s International Women's Day as an opportunity to take a closer look at them.

Unconscious biases

Unconscious biases describe subconscious prejudices regarding the skills and competencies of people or certain groups. They arise due to patterns of thought that people subconsciously assign to certain stereotypes. It is like wearing a pair of glasses: they distort our perception without us noticing. Particularly in working life, and especially in a leadership context, managers are repeatedly tested in their decisions without them realising.

Caroline Schmid-Steiner from Baloise’s Diversity coordination centre believes that the topic involves an interesting challenge for all of us: “Unconscious biases can push people to form overhasty opinions or make rash judgements. But the good news is that there are ways of correcting them.”

“Unconscious biases – do I have them, too?”

Pigeonholing

Yes. We all have these types of prejudice. Pigeonholing things and people helps us to make decisions quickly in everyday life. Our brain needs this automated process to cope with mounting workloads, the sensory overload coming from the environment around us and the ever-increasing demands that we are expected to meet. We are continually looking for patterns in people so we can categorise them. The preferences and aversions that we develop in the process are prejudices.

“How can I find out what my unconscious biases are?” (H3)
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But a key first step is to reflect on your own judgements: 
-    Identify situations in which you act automatically
-    Question your gut instinct
-    Use facts to back your decision up
-    Ask for feedback and different points of view

Anyone wanting to take a closer look can take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). The test is scientifically sound and is aimed primarily at alerting people to their subconscious prejudices so that they can change them – with what are sometimes surprising results:

“OK, so what do I do now?” 

Astrid Blunschi Balmer, expert for management development at Baloise, is very interested in the topic. She is convinced that recognising, and taking measures to address, our prejudices is part of our ongoing self-discovery and personal further development journey. “Subconscious prejudices are based primarily on socialisation (or our upbringing), our experiences, cultural influences and use of media. The classic example: Children as young as nursery school-age already define gender stereotypes of typically female and male jobs. Or maybe your own parents and grandparents had traditional roles, with dad going to work and mum staying at home to look after the family. This influences our assumptions on gender stereotypes because these were the examples we were confronted with over a period spanning many years.”

Question your patterns of thought from time to time – especially at work, for example when making recruitment decisions, in connection with career planning, during meetings, etc. – and get to know the stereotypes you tend to apply. This allows you to overcome patterns of thought and be more objective in your judgements.

“How is Baloise addressing the issue?” 

Let’s take the example of job advertisements: “Men and women think differently when looking for a job, too,” says Corinna Fröschke from Employer Branding at Baloise. When it comes to job advertisements, this also means that certain words can put women off applying. For example, if German-language job advertisements only use the male form, or say that a company is “looking for movers and shakers”, then women tend to automatically think that the company is looking for a man. Women respond better to phrases such as “let’s create change together”, “I can contribute my skills”, “mutual development” or “learning from each other”. Evidence shows that more women respond if small details like these are borne in mind when publishing a job advertisement – especially in more male-dominated areas like the fintech sector.

Increasing attention is also being paid to having several people involved in a recruitment process. Peer interviews, for example, allow future team colleagues to recommend their chosen candidate. 

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