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After reading the previous article, you may be thinking, if we have these unconscious biases we’re probably saying and doing hurtful things to others without realizing it. Yes, and we do it all the time!

These invisible jabs/barbs manifest through comments or behaviors that are usually unintentional and unrecognized by the instigator. They can also manifest in the physical surroundings. Google’s conference rooms, named after only male scientists, is one such example.

These invisible jabs/barbs manifest through comments or behaviors that are usually unintentional and unrecognized by the instigator. They can also manifest in the physical surroundings. Google’s conference rooms, named after only male scientists, is one such example.

People in the non-dominant group often hold unconscious biases toward their own social group. As a woman I have caught myself assuming a male speaker knew more than the female speakers. This is known as internalized sexism. This can also manifest as internalized racism, hetero-sexism, ageism, etc. Our biases not only hurt others they can also hurt and limit ourselves.

Our biases not only hurt others they can also hurt and limit ourselves.

Unconscious Biases that Hurt

These unintentional, hurtful verbal or behavioral indignities, based on an unchangeable aspect of a person, (i.e. race, gender, age, etc)  are called “micro-inequities” or “microaggressions.” The “aggression” in the word “microaggression” represents the experience of the person on the receiving end of the unintentional behavior, not that the action was a conscious aggressive move.

I have found the term “micro-inequities” used more in business circles and “microaggressions” used more in social justice, educational, and psychological circles. Both are helpful in understanding how our unconscious biases can manifest.

A common type of a microaggression is a moment of rudeness or insensitivity toward a person or group, called “microinsults” (Sue & Sue). These are below the level of conscious awareness yet convey an insulting hidden message. Examples of these include:

  • Making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females.
  • Interrupting a person mid-sentence (i.e. what you have to say is not important).
  • Said to an Asian person “Why are you so quiet?” or to a Black person “Why are you so loud?” (i.e. pathologizing cultural values/communication styles).
  • Said to a 40-year-old woman at a tech conference by a 25-year-old man, “So glad to see more of you ladies here.” (i.e. second class citizen)
  • Said to a person of color at a board meeting: “I’m surprised to see you here.” (i.e. second class citizen)
  • A man puts his hands on a woman’s hips or small of her back to pass by her (i.e. your body is not yours).

A common type of a microaggression is a moment of rudeness or insensitivity toward a person, called “microinsults” (Sue & Sue).

Another type of microaggression involves invalidating the reality of the person of the non-dominant group, called “microinvalidations” (Sue & Sue, 2003). Examples of these include:

  • A woman brings up to her male boss that she continuously gets interrupted by the men at company meetings. Her boss says that she’s being overly sensitive and not asserting herself enough.
  • A Black man shares with a white colleague that he keeps getting turned down for management positions and thinks it is because he’s Black. The colleague says he’s probably just imagining it and maybe he doesn’t have the qualifications they’re looking for.

Another type of microaggression is when we invalidate the reality of the person of the non-dominant group, called “microinvalidations” (Sue & Sue, 2003).

Unconscious Biases that Empower

“Micro-advantages” are positive micro-messages that are “subtle, often unconscious, messages that motivate, inspire and enhance workplace performance.” People of the dominant social group receive these automatically and regularly and those in the non-dominant group rarely do.

Examples of micro-advantages:

  • Always having people accommodate your language
  • People stop what they are doing to listen to you
  • Having people take your word for it when you give them a reason why something went wrong
  • Being acknowledged when you enter a room or make a contribution

Micro-advantages are subtle, often unconscious, messages that motivate, inspire and enhance workplace performance.

The Impact

As you can imagine, these events are very subtle and can be challenging to notice or prove. The person performing the unconscious act usually does not know they are expressing a bias and may become defensive when told. However, despite their intention, what they did or said had a very real impact.

Impact of Stereotypes

Stereotypes alone can have an impact, especially when they are negative about a social group to which we belong. A negative stereotype could be applied to just about any identity we have—such as being poor, rich, old, or young. And we know when we’re at risk of a negative stereotype being applied to us. We know what “people might think.”

Professor Claude Steele of Stanford University calls this “stereotype threat.” A stereotype threat is a type of “identity contingency“—“the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity, because you are old, young, gay, a white male, a woman, Latino, politically conservative or liberal, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a cancer patient, and so on” (Steele, 2010).

An example of an identity contingency is as a Black man in the 1950s, Steele had to restrict his swimming at the local pool to a restricted time. Or, a modern day version, women clutch their purses closer when he walks by.

Steele did a study on stereotype threat with girls around math skills. He learned that there is a link between identity and intellectual performance. When girls were told “girls aren’t good at math” they underperformed compared to the group that weren’t told that. Stereotype threat can also be seen in organizations where women have less aspiration for leadership roles, “particularly when masculine traits are subtly associated with leadership activities” (Kray & Shirako, 2011).

Stereotype threat can also be seen in organizations where women have less aspiration for leadership roles, “particularly when masculine traits are subtly associated with leadership activities” (Kray & Shirako, 2011).

Impact of Unconscious Biases

Common experiences for those on the receiving end of a negative unconscious bias (micro-inequities/microaggressions):

  • Loss in confidence
  • Loss in self-esteem
  • Reduction in productivity
  • Reduction in motivation
  • Increase in anxiety (work stress)

Common experiences for those on the receiving end of a positive unconscious bias (micro-advantages):

  • Supported
  • Motivated
  • Inspired
  • A sense of belonging

Next, How to Navigate Unconscious Bias

As leaders we want to help those we lead to thrive. As coaches and therapists we want to better understand our clients and not impede their process. By becoming aware of our own unconscious biases we can better serve those we help by becoming more skillful at navigating unconscious bias rather than acting out unconsciously.

Other Sources

Ross, H. (2014). Everyday bias: Identifying and navigating unconscious judgments in our daily lives. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Sue, D., & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: J. Wiley.

Angella

Author Angella

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