Unconscious Bias

But I think that no matter how smart, people usually see what they’re already looking for, that’s all.’ 
—Veronica Roth, Author

For so many of the women I professionally mentor, they see the world as so full of gender bias that they think they will never be where they would like to be in their careers.  It’s true, we have significant challenges internationally, and the #metoo and other movements have revealed just how deep gender bias runs.

Below I’ll examine how our own unconscious bias might keep us from acting on our aspirations.  We will go a step deeper and describe the Reticular Activating System (RAS) before looking at how these two concepts are related.

Let’s start with defining unconscious bias.  Unconscious bias, sometimes called implicit bias, is a bias of which we are unaware.  It may happen outside of our own control. It happens automatically, and we all have several biases of which we are unconscious. In the late 1990s, psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald explored these hidden (unconscious) biases we all carry from our lifetimes of experience.  These can be from our traditional attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and other factors.  Banaji and Greenwald used the Implicit Association Test to establish the hidden biases of their subjects.  They wrote about their revolutionary findings in their book Blindspot.[i]

We spend a lot of our time in our minds, creating our own future pictures.  In this process, we bring forth thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, dreams and memories of previous actions.  We do this irrespective of our conscious awareness.  Our RAS is located in the core of our brain stem. The RAS takes its instructions from our conscious mind and passes them on to our subconscious mind. As a consequence of this biological function, whatever we are focusing upon will percolate through to our subconscious mind.  It will then appear at a future time.

For example, have you ever had a desire to eat hot chips?  From that moment, everywhere you look, people all around you are eating hot chips.  You’ve never seen so many chips!   That is how the RAS works. It’s seeing the things you’re looking for subconsciously.

I first heard about the RAS from one of my mentors, Donna McGeorge at a facilitation training workshop.  It immediately got me thinking about the connection to our unconscious biases about ourselves.  I have worked with many women who reinforce their views of themselves unconsciously by continually keeping their RAS programmed for that very same perspective.

Meet Jess

Jess was a young woman I met for some mentoring sessions.  She was looking to better position herself for a future promotion at work.  She loved her job and commuted every day for several hours.  I recall saying, “That sounds so hard.  I wonder how you keep from being overtired”. 

Her response was, “Well, of course I wouldn’t do it for just any employer.  This is a great company, and I love my job, so it doesn’t feel like work. I know what I’m doing, and there’s plenty more to learn. It’s easy to stay motivated.” 

It was clear to me, as we talked, that there were some good reasons why Jess liked her job so much. 

  • Her values aligned with those of her employers. She felt they cared for her.  They proved this by offering flexible working opportunities, accommodation and transport home if needed.
  • She was well positioned to develop her career.  She could see where her role fit within the goals of the team.
  • Her manager offered her useful feedback about her good work.  He also told her where she can learn from misjudgements.
  • She felt she was well paid.

I would add further factor that Jess could see these positives because she tuned her RAS to look for them.  As a consequence, she felt in control.  It’s her choice to work in the job.  That made all the difference to her mindset about work.  

Much has been written about the very real impact of unconscious gender bias in holding women back in work and society.  Lisa Marie Jenkins described it this way:

There is a silent, yet powerful force – unconscious gender bias and we all have it, men and women. Even if you are pro-women, this bias looms unconsciously unless, conscious action is taken to shift your default mode of thinking. There is actually neuroscience behind it.[ii]

But what if some of that unconscious bias is our own?  How often do we self-impose barriers to our success, without even knowing we do so?  Very often, the bias we are facing is our own. We need to own it and get it out of the way. Our own unconscious bias very likely gets in our way.

Let’s face it, the majority of women whom you talk to every day will say their success came from hard work, sheer luck, or help from other people.  We simply won’t acknowledge it is our own intellect, political nous, reading of a situation, or innate intuition that explains our success.

Nathalie Salles describes situations where women undermine themselves without realising their behaviour is affecting their progress.[iii]  Carol Sankar writes about the Belief Gap, she says,  ‘ … our fear of rejection will inevitably hold us back from taking a risk if everything is not ‘perfect’.[iv]

Nathalie Gevinti declares that women are ‘creatures of habit’ who like ‘clinging to certainty and to what we consider our identity.  Even when we don’t like that identity’.[v]  Gevinti says that by constantly looking at what doesn’t work in society (i.e. the glass ceiling) we keep reinforcing that idea.  In contrast, she quotes many successful women who have made it to where they aspired. \

What these authors are referring to is a type of unconscious bias we hold for ourselves, and its relationship to seeing only what we look for.  Our ability to create our own future relates to the part of our brain that serves as the filter between our conscious and subconscious mind.

  • What biases do you hold against yourself?
  • How is your RAS holding you back? What are you looking for that you always see?
  • How are you clinging to parts of your identity that you don’t like?

[i] Banaji, Mahzarin R. and Greenwald, Anthony G. (2013) Blindspot. Delacorte Press, New York.

[ii] Jenkins, Lisa Marie (2015) Unconscious Gender Bias: Everyone’s Issue. Huffington Post. 27 May 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-marie-jenkins/unconscious-gender-bias-e_b_7447524.html

[iii] Salles, N. (2016) How Female Leaders Accidentally Hold Themselves Back. LinkedIn blog. Online: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-female-leaders-accidentally-hold-themselves-back-nathalie-salles?trk=hp-feed-article-title-like

[iv] Sankar, C (2015) The Confidence Factor for Women in Leadership: Conversations with Women CEOs & Leaders. I.L Press

[v] Gevinti, N. (13 December 2015) How Much Are You Contributing to Your Own Glass Ceiling? LinkedIn blog. Online: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-much-you-contributing-your-own-glass-ceiling-nathalie-gevinti

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