Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: Social & Cultural Causes

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are trying to create a workplace with fewer microaggressions and a diverse, collegial environment, then you might want to develop your understanding of unconscious bias and its social and cultural causes.

Bias in the Workplace

As a newly hired director of a subdivision of her company, Laura is really interested in growing her employees' collaborative sensibilities and boosting their morale.

A Latina woman, Laura knows that having a diverse workplace means having a rich, fulfilling workplace, where people can learn from each other and balance a variety of perspectives.

At the same time, Laura is very acutely aware of the impact biases, or preconceived notions about other people and groups, can have on workplace relationships. For example, Laura knows that bias can lead to microaggressions, or indirect and subtle discrimination against members of a marginalized group. When people are not aware of their biases, they may be more likely to commit microaggressions without realizing that they are doing so.

As she starts thinking about how she can reduce bias within her division, Laura wonders more about how to understand these biases.

Laura realizes that bias is multifactorial, meaning that it has a variety of causes that can work in sync with each other. She is especially interested in the social and cultural factors that seem to profoundly impact biases among her colleagues.

Race

Laura remembers that when she first joined her company, most of her colleagues were white. She was used to being a racial and ethnic minority from a variety of educational experiences, but she was still consistently frustrated by the racial biases people held against her.

One evening, Laura's colleagues were gathering to go out after work. She knew that many work decisions would be made at this ostensibly social gathering. One colleague looked at her and seemed to realize she was being excluded. He said, 'Next time we'll go out for tacos and margaritas, okay?'

Laura knew that this microaggression, which both excluded and marginalized her, was based on his discomfort with her racial difference and his biases regarding her ethnicity. Race is often responsible for the unconscious biases we hold.

Having a diverse workplace is a very special thing, but it requires hard work to minimize the impact of unconscious biases.
diversity

Gender

Gender is also often at the root of workplace bias. Laura has sat in many meetings, even meetings with multiple other women present, where her ideas have been dismissed, only to be taken up when men articulate the same thoughts. Laura understands that some people are biased against seeing women as thoughtful, viable contributors, and as a result simply cannot take their contributions seriously.

Socioeconomics and Education

Laura understands that she herself is not immune to developing biases related to others. Some of her most triggering categories have to do with education and socioeconomic status.

Not long ago, Laura was on a hiring committee for a new team member. One job candidate seemed very qualified, with credentials and strong experience. When Laura saw that this candidate had attended community college, she found herself thinking, 'Oh, but he won't really be able to do the job.'

Laura checked herself when she recognized this bias and was pleased when the candidate excelled at the interview. Now she works with him successfully almost every day!

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