Unconscious bias can impact every aspect of our lives, from who we associate with to how we spend our time and money.
If a car salesperson has directed their attention to your male companion, despite the fact that you’re making the decision, you’ve likely experienced unconscious bias. Or if you doubt your ability to plan for your financial future, you may be prompted by unconscious bias.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is when we are guided by beliefs, opinions, doubts and values that are so ingrained we don’t even realise we have them.
Jennifer Whelan is the founder and director of Psynapse, a consultancy specialising in diversity, inclusion and adaptive leadership development.
“Unconscious bias is the area of human cognitive processes that occurs outside of awareness,” she says. “Unconscious thinking includes gut reactions, hunches and assumptions about all kinds of things, but people and social groups in particular.”
Whelan says that unconscious thinking actually has a role in the way our minds work. It’s the brain’s autopilot and is essential for multitasking in everyday life. But it is more prone to errors when complex information needs to be absorbed and analysed.
The most common consequence of unconscious thinking is confirmation bias, a tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms what we know.
How can it influence our careers?
Unconscious thinking is usually informed by stereotypes, often around gender and culture.
“We have rich thumbnail sketches that describe what different people tend to be like, what roles they tend to do, characteristics they have. We absorb these from birth through socialisation, education and societal norms.”
These sketches are based on deeply ingrained stereotypes that don’t change very readily.
“The content of your unconscious stereotypes around women is likely to be formulated on information from 20 to 30 years ago, and they are gross generalisations,” says Whelan.
For example, Whelan says unconscious gender stereotypes tend to assume that women are more caring, relational, warm and nurturing, and that men are more ambitious, driven, independent and authoritative. Male stereotypes are more closely related to leadership qualities, which is why organisations are challenging unconscious bias in decision making.
“We know women are over-represented at entry level in organisations but a gap opens up from mid-level management. It coincides with when they start a family, but family responsibilities alone do not explain the loss of women from mid-level upwards. A major part of it is unconscious bias. When women are evaluated against mostly masculine leadership competencies, there is a perception of a lack of fit.”
How does it influence our financial decision making?
One of the persistent unconscious biases is that women are not good financial managers.
“That starts at school with the stereotype that boys are better at maths than girls, despite data1 that proves it untrue.
“It’s still stereotypically men who make the bulk of the big ticket decisions. For a long time the banks’ financial planning offerings have assumed that the typical customer is a man.”
Financial planning for women needs to take into account career breaks to have children, part-time work, inequalities in superannuation and retirement income, and pay gap issues.
“Women’s and men’s financial trajectories are not the same,” Whelan says. “Banks are now building that into their financial planning software to enable women to make more informed decisions.”
But Whelan says women also need to overcome their own unconscious bias and stop self stereotyping.
What can we do to overcome unconscious bias?
As the name implies, unconscious bias is unconscious and hard to change.
“For organisations, it is about clear policies, practices and decision-making processes,” Whelan says.
For individuals, it starts with awareness and resisting stereotypes.
“Play devil’s advocate, look for counterfactual information and make conscious objective decisions,” Whelan says.
Unconscious thinking is an essential human function – we need it. We just need to be aware of how it could be holding us back.