Unconscious bias is a type of unintentional bias that all of us ‘suffer’ from (even the most scientifically-minded and critical thinking academics!). It refers to a psychological phenomena, that we are unaware of, where our brain’s perception of other individuals plays tricks on us. Our brain as an effective processing machine, fires rapid decisions, makes short cuts on how we perceive and assess others. Howard Ross calls it the “human danger detector”. It’s not that we are either good or bad people in the way we judge others, it’s just that our brain has to process so much information that it has evolved mechanisms to make things easy in processing information. But the bug is, that it may not always help us make the right decisions.
Psychologists have extensively researched unconscious bias. Tests have even been developed to unearth and measure such biases. The term implicit bias is also used to describe such biases, once individuals become aware of them. The most commonly known test regarding unconscious bias is the Harward test, which measures different types of associations we make- you can test yourself with Project Implicit: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
Unconscious bias contributes a great deal to organisational culture and has been shown to impact many decisions made in higher education. These include impacts as diverse as recruitment and promotion practices, work allocation, recommendation letters writing, or the types of leaders we appoint (eg. see link). If we are serious about promoting Equality and Diversity, then we need to be serious about working through our own unconscious biases.
But what does this all mean for PhD students and early career researchers? While decisions made about you (e.g. inviting you or not to an interview, selection or not of your fellowship application by a review panel, being invited or not to be a keynote speaker) may be influenced by unconscious biases; I would like you to consider how unconscious bias may also influence your own beliefs, which may hinder your career progression or the way you are working with others.
Consider areas of your career and professional development where unconscious biases and assumptions may be at play in the choices that you make. Can you make better decision by bringing to the forth the biases influencing your choices? For example:
1/ How are you choosing your collaborators?
You may tend to limit the development of collaborations to people you like, to people you understand. The scope of people we like or want to work with is influenced by unconscious bias. So consider, who you have as collaborators? Are there ways for you to extend your collaboration network towards people who may be less like you, who bring something quite different from you, people you may not connect to so easily, collaborators who may take you out of your “biases” comfort zone.
Diversity in teams contributes to innovation, so be daring by bringing into your collaborative fold researchers who will bring such diversity.
2/ How are you choosing your mentors and who are you asking feedback from?
We have a particular mind-set when we think about the mentors we would like to have. Have you considered that unconscious bias may keep you in a specific bubble with a certain type of mentor? Is this good enough or should you consider that a broader and more diverse “circle of advisors” could bring valuable contribution in supporting your career progression? Have you thought that the mentors you choose may be mentors who tell you what you want to hear? Who else may bring potential insight?
3/ How are you supporting others?
As researchers you will be supporting many other people, whether undergraduate and Master students, PhD students, technicians, research assistants etc. Have you ever considered how your unconscious biases may influence your approach to supporting other people? Do you put the same energy with all of those your supervise or work with, or do you tend to offer more support to some and less to others? Could your approach be influenced by biases you may have? Are there people that you tend to avoid supporting? Have you thought about the type of advice you may give to different students? Is unconscious bias influencing your level of engagement with different students? How could you work differently to mitigate the influence of such biases?
With our institutional commitment and priorities towards Equality and Diversity, it is particularly important to become aware of how unconscious bias may affect our way of interacting with others within the teaching and research environment. While much work has been done in departments through the Equality and Diversity committees in developing actions plans, additional developments have included awareness of fostering an inclusive curriculum through the SEED professional development programme.
So consider diversity with all tasks you engage with, whether at work or beyond.