Unconscious discrimination is based on a prejudice, bias or stereotype that people hold about other individuals or groups of individuals without being aware of it. It is often targeted against minorities, such as persons of color, ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ communities and people with disabilities.
What is unconscious discrimination?
Unconscious (or implicit) discrimination is a term that refers to the way our mental associations work outside our awareness and control. Everyone has implicit biases that lead to unconscious discrimination. It is commonly triggered when our brain makes quick judgements about other people based on our previous experiences, thought patterns, assumptions and ideas about the world.
Unconscious bias is a term closely connected to unconscious discrimination meaning that biases that form our inherent human cognition often result in acts of unconscious discrimination.
Deeply ingrained biases are subconscious (often negative) attitudes and stereotypes rooted in our upbringing, cultural context and environment.
Unconscious biases can be defined as an implicit preference for (or dislike of) a particular individual or social group. Biases can either be positive or negative but they usually lead to unconscious discrimination toward other people.
For example, affinity bias is the tendency to favor those who share our similar backgrounds, experiences, or characteristics. This can lead to the unfair biased treatment of people who do not fit our mold in terms of age, gender identity or socioeconomic background.
Unconscious bias is seldomly a fully formed thought or idea, but rather a subconscious attitude. It has a direct impact on the way we react emotionally in everyday situations, whether it is at home or in the workplace.
How unconscious biases form
As humans we are naturally biased and thus wired to unconsciously discriminate against other humans. Being impartial doesn’t come easy to the brain, even when we are consciously trying to be fair. This is because of the way the brain helps us understand the world, categorizing things as good and bad, identifying patterns of behavior, and course-plotting our decision-making processes.
All of this happens unconsciously through neurological automation. Mental classification informs our brains on how to react swiftly when needed, but it also leads to overgeneralization and stereotyping. The process of classification is different depending on our upbringing and social environment. What we experience from a very young age, is imprinted on our brains and will inevitably shape our perceptions and prejudices, both consciously and subconsciously.
Examples of unconscious discrimination
Unconscious discrimination arises from the type of implicit biases we have. Some of these are:
- Affinity bias: The tendency to favor people who share our similar backgrounds, interests and experiences. Can often lead to the unconscious discrimination of people we consider different from us.
- Ageism: A prejudice against a person’s age. Often leads to older people being discriminated against in the workplace or being denied opportunities based on their age.
- Attribution bias: The tendency to explain a person’s behavior based on their character rather than external circumstances. Can result in unfair judgements and stereotyping.
- Beauty bias: The way in which people are perceived on the basis of their physical attractiveness. Beauty is often associated with goodness, which can lead to implicit discrimination against those who are considered less attractive. For example, in hiring and promotion decisions, candidates perceived as more attractive may be given preferential treatment over equally qualified candidates who are considered less attractive.
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to look for and interpret information in a way that is consistent with one’s preconceived beliefs or values. This may result in the reinforcement of stereotypes about certain groups or individuals.
- Gender bias: Favoritism toward one gender or prejudice against another. Typically, gender biases favor men and boys over women and girls in the contexts of education, employment, and leadership opportunities. In addition to the traditional binary, gender biased discrimination affects individuals who identify outside the gender binary, including non-binary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.
Unconscious discrimination in the workplace
Unconscious discrimination is very common in the workplace, starting as early as in the hiring process when recruiters consider candidates for a job opportunity. It can be hard to identify and address since it occurs implicitly.
However, by understanding the different forms of unconscious biases that exist, most organizations can improve awareness to create a more inclusive work environment.
One common example is a male manager who thinks male employees are more competent. When recruiting for a new position, it is likely that they will choose a male candidate over a female based on their own pre-existing biases.
Another example is if a manager chooses to hire or promote a candidate based on where they went to school, even though there are other candidates equally qualified. Other forms of unconscious discrimination in the workplace are implicit racial biases and unconscious stereotyping of social status based on a person’s appearance, attitudes or other characteristics.
Mitigating unconscious discrimination in the workplace
Eliminating implicit discrimination in the workplace is a challenging but essential task that requires a multi-faceted approach.
Here are a few tips on how to reduce and prevent implicit biases in the workplace:
- Provide relevant resources that raise awareness of unconscious biases. These resources may include specific training programs that provide practical strategies to recognize and challenge unconscious biases.
- Advertise job vacancies in several places to reach a wider and more diverse pool of candidates. Deliberately leaving out certain details during the selection process, such as applicants’ name and gender, may be helpful to avoid recruiting managers acting on their own biases. Having more than one person involved in the recruitment process can also have a positive impact.
- Counter-stereotyping can be a powerful technique for breaking down stereotypes and biased assumptions. It involves actively exposing employees to information that contradict persistent stereotypes about certain groups, such as highlighting success stories, achievements, and contributions from individuals who defy those stereotypes.