We’re hearing more and more about unconscious bias in the workplace. That’s caused me to think about where I have seen and, unfortunately, continue to see, assumptions made because of unconscious bias.
First, what is unconscious bias? It has to do with how we see the world through our own lens because of how we were raised. As a white woman, for example, I see the world differently than I would had I been born Asian American or African American. And I certainly see and experience life differently than if I had been born and raised as a man. Unconscious bias also includes many other attributes, including sexual orientation, age, and religious preferences. And the reality is that each of us is biased.
Wikipedia says “unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal and able to influence behavior.” Training is more pervasive now to make people aware of this concept so people will be less discriminatory when working with others who are different. It’s a big part of acknowledging the need for diversity and inclusion.
Unconscious bias at work leads us to make assumptions about many things. For example, many baby boomers assume millennials are lazy and don’t want to work. That’s not true, but if we boomers believe it, we paint the entire millennial generation with the same brush.
There are those who believe that when a man and woman are married, the man is the breadwinner. In today’s world, that’s definitely not always the case. I was talking with a young friend recently who is married with a small child. She works outside the home and her husband stays at home. When he goes to the park with their child, the other women won’t talk with him.
Or perhaps the assumption is the man in the relationship has the “bigger” job than the wife.
When we moved to the town where I held my first dean position, my husband and I attended a community event. As we were chatting with some new acquaintances, my husband was asked what work he did. He responded that he was an instructor in business at the university. Then I was asked. When I said I was the dean of the business school, the man who asked had the most comical look on his face. Because of his bias, he was shocked that the woman was the dean and the man was a faculty member.
Many of us have worked in retail in our careers. People are trained not to do this, but what assumptions are made in a store when someone comes in dressed sloppily? Let’s say they have sweats and jeans on or, as an extreme example, overalls? How are they approached and treated?
Contrast this with how the very professionally dressed person is treated. Some clerks might assume the former is more of a vagrant who needs to be watched closely. And generally, well-dressed people are considered to have money. There are classic stories about very wealthy people dressing in casual clothing to go buy cars. When the salesperson makes the assumption that they couldn’t possibly afford, say, the Cadillac they say they are looking at, they pull out wads of thousand- dollar bills.
I had a student whose mom wanted a fur coat. The student’s father sent her on an exploratory mission to determine styles and costs. Because the 20-something woman was judged as not having money when she arrived at the store, she was treated rudely after finally being acknowledged. When she reported this behavior to her dad, he went back to the store and told them they had lost a sale.
We cannot totally become unbiased. I get that. But we can remember that just because we see the world through the lens of our own experience, we must realize we don’t know everything. The world is quite different than when our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were raised. Please be open to ideas about people who are different from you, whether it’s their gender, age, ethnic background, or anything else that makes them different from you.