How to Combat Unconscious Bias

[fa icon="calendar"] Aug 22, 2017 9:00:00 AM / by Karin Novelia

Karin Novelia

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Being biased is a perfectly natural thing. As much as people like to convince themselves that they aren’t biased or that they’re “colorblind,” the fact of the matter is that everyone has biases. They stem from the fact that we come from different backgrounds and are raised to have certain mindsets and values. Jumping to conclusions is also a built-in defense mechanism. According to a University of Virginia study, our brain is bombarded with 11 million pieces of information every second and is only able to process 40 of them. The brain saves time by taking shortcuts based on past knowledge.

When it comes to diversity, it isn’t a question of “Are you biased?” and more of “What biases do you have?” Becauses our biases are mostly unconscious, the only way to minimize them is by recognizing our biases and making a conscious effort to not let them affect decision making.


Decision making plays a huge part in hiring new talent. Ideally, recruitment should be based on a person’s skills, but when unconscious bias comes into play that isn’t always the case. An example of unconscious bias would be gender bias. We associate males with certain traits and jobs, and females with other traits and job descriptions. This association of gender and ability is often misguided and strays from proper decision making. In order to combat this, distractions from ability assessment should be avoided.

A study by the Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford did just that by holding gender blind auditions for an orchestra. The number of female musicians went up from 5% to 25% as a result. By eliminating factors that had nothing to do with musicians’ skills (physical appearance and gender) they could focus on what mattershow well the candidates played music.

The same blind methods can be applied to job applications, not just for gender but for race as well. Gender-blind job applications studies have shown that follow-ups chosen by employers were only 5% female when gender was known, and shot up to 54% when gender was not obvious. In a study on race, resumes with white-sounding names resulted in 50% more call-backs. An application with the name “Emily” would have a call-back rate of 8.4% compared to 2.2 for an “Aisha”, even though their resumes were of similar quality.  


Unconscious bias also affects job listings. The wording of a job description can deter potential employees who feel that they do not meet certain criteria for the position.

Women, for example, are not applying for as many jobs as men. According to ERE Media, women were less likely to apply for a job when the wording was more masculine rather than feminine. Use of words like “dominant” and “competitive” were unappealing compared to words such as “community” and “support.” The masculine wording signaled that the company was likely to be male-dominated and excluding for them. The same study highlights that none of the participants were aware of the use of “gendered language”. When asked why they weren’t attracted to the job they cited general lack of interest or appeal. This once again illustrates how biases are unconscious and can negatively affect many of our decisions.

Taking care to word job listings as neutrally as possible, makes it more likely for more applicants to come in who can then be assessed by their capabilities rather than cultural fit. In fact, Textio, an augmented writing platform has based their business model on using data to improve job listingwhich according to them results in 25% more qualified job applicants, 23% more women and 17% faster recruitment.


A good way to combat unconscious bias is to question the reasoning behind decisions and evaluate them for any biases. Am I leaning towards hiring this person because we share similar backgrounds? Is there any way to objectively test if they have the skills necessary for the job?

Refrain from making decisions alone. Being interactive and having others weigh in on a candidate makes it more likely to teams to come to more accurate decisions. Diverse opinions and thinking contributes to error detection, and pushes people to focus more on facts and asses them more carefully. This prevents personal biases from coloring decisions.

It isn’t easy to completely undo biases. In fact, it might be impossible to get rid of them entirely. But by not getting defensive about our natural biases, we can recognize them and more readily prevent them from affecting our decision making, resulting in fairer business practices and more diverse companies.

Topics: Diversity

Karin Novelia

Written by Karin Novelia

I do Marketing at ROIKOI, a smarter sourcing platform where you get your own database of candidates pre-filtered for talent and fit.