Can We Really Rid Ourselves of Unconscious Bias?

Apr 20, 2022

Or Are We Doomed to Bigotry Forever?

I’d like to clear up some misunderstandings about unconscious bias and the concept that unconscious bias training in a workplace “doesn’t work.”

Fact #1: We ALL hold unconscious biases. It doesn’t matter if we are marginalized ourselves, we still hold biases.

1b: Bias is NOT the same as bigotry (racism, ableism, sexism etc). -Isms are forms of systemic oppression. Your bigotry might be based on your bias, but they are not the same issue.

Fact #2: We cannot rid ourselves of our unconscious biases. Sorry, we can’t. They are in our brains for life. And I feel like either people were sold a promise of being able to get rid of them, or people thought if they could only get rid of them, all problems would be solved.

Unfortunately, no.

As you can see, we cannot solely focus on unconscious bias as a means to an end, we also have to work on our -isms, because those beliefs can be changed. But we can’t just focus on one without the other.

But Kelly, if we can’t get rid of our unconscious biases, what do we do?

Great question! Research shows if we are first aware of them, we can start to understand our thinking and change our behaviour. Once you know you hold bias against certain groups or types of people, you can then make choices to challenge your bias, consider if you act or speak unfairly towards them and modify your behaviour, or even abstain from making decisions involving those people.

For example, if you are on a team of people hiring and you know you hold bias against the candidate, you can still interview the person to get to know them, but perhaps have other people present to keep you in check, and abstain from voting when it comes time to choose the right candidate.

Basic rules we can all follow:

  1. Know your biases

  2. Challenge yourself on them (get more education or get to know more of that type of person on a more personal level)

  3. Make conscious decisions based on how you will speak and act towards these people.

Note: these steps sound very similar to breaking down -isms, which is probably why they get mingled together, but the outcomes are very different.

Once you understand the goals, you can better move towards justice in ways that are not just authentically true to yourself, but scientifically true based on how our brains work.

In summary, unconscious bias training DOES work, but it can’t exist alone. Your workplace Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) strategy has to be intersectional and multi-pronged. When we approach justice from all sides, we can work together to create Completely Inclusive Workplace Cultures™.

BonusHarvard University has a great set of quick unconscious bias tests you can take for free from the comfort of your home. Try them out!

Kelly Bron Johnson is the founder of Completely Inclusive, a consultancy devoted to helping businesses create inclusive and accessible workplaces and spaces and has kindly allowed us to use her writing for this blog.