We’re accustomed to hearing “bias” and immediately having a negative perception. While it can have a number of adverse effects, when bias is appropriately recognized and leveraged, it has the potential to open doors to a more potent leadership model and a more diverse, inclusive organization.
Conscious and Unconscious Bias
Bias comes in many forms, but most experiences of bias can be grouped under two broad umbrellas: unconscious bias and conscious bias. Unconscious bias encompasses feelings, thoughts, impressions, and preconceptions about a particular group that may (and often do) affect decision-making but are not consciously considered by the individual. On the other hand, conscious bias describes these same thoughts and preconceptions, specifically those biases that individuals can access, be aware of, and acknowledge to themselves or others.
In today’s world, unconscious bias is often the primary focus, particularly in conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, for two reasons. First, people want to assume that everyone is trying their best and not behaving in biased ways because of deliberate prejudice and exclusion. Second, we’ve realized that it’s paramount to acknowledge that not all bias is conscious and intentional; society “builds in” biases for all of us that we may not even realize, but the exclusionary and negative results for those groups are the same, nonetheless.
People tend to be unaware of how stereotypes can mold their perceptions and behavior towards particular groups (racial, ethnic, gender, etc.). Generally, even unprejudiced people are still psychologically and emotionally affected by stereotypes.
This is why conscious bias—or, alternately, bias-consciousness—can be so important, particularly in the context of business and higher education. As research from the academic journal Contemporary Sociology explains, trying to remove all bias is not feasible, and it runs the risk of actually worsening the very thing it means to address:
“First, the task is not to eliminate “stereotypical thinking” (it can’t be done), but rather to minimize its impact on personnel decisions. Second, unless done carefully, efforts to get decision-makers to attend to the actual traits of individuals can backfire. Introducing negative, gender-linked, race-linked, or simply irrelevant information may actually increase the degree to which stereotypes shape decisions while increasing decision makers’ confidence in the appropriateness of their actions.”
When you are conscious of bias, it allows for a different psychological response. Individuals who recognize bias exists are more likely to acknowledge and challenge their own inherent beliefs: where those beliefs come from, what effect they may have, and that they may not be valid.
Awareness of bias can even, perhaps counterintuitively, be a starting point for improving diversity and inclusion. When we attempt to erase bias altogether, we risk flattening culture and losing the benefits of diverse viewpoints. As Christine Lundsgaard Ottsen writes in Bias-Conscious Leadership: How diversity leads to better decision-making, “The potential for diversity evaporates when we try to erase differences.”
Bias in the Workplace
It may surprise many people, but some standard practices in the workplace may reinforce existing biases or build upon them. For instance, consider an institution with a strict requirement that candidates have X prior job experience or Y degree to be considered. While this might seem like an “everyone gets treated the same” approach, it can screen out individuals who faced barriers (women, racial minorities, individuals with less generational wealth) but developed comparable skills through other routes and could bring great strengths to the role.
Addressing bias in the workplace requires a cultural focus, not a mandate or a single session for “training.” In a paper for the Virginia Law Review, Katharine T. Bartlett lays out five key observations about how even the best-intentioned anti-bias training can go wrong—and, more importantly, how it can go right:
- “Implicit bias is not only invisible and largely unintended, but not readily reachable through legal coercion.
- People whose motivation to act in nondiscriminatory ways is based on an internal commitment to nondiscriminatory norms—or “good intentions”—are less likely to engage in stereotyping of others than people who feel pressured by the law.
- People internalize nondiscrimination values best when they feel a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
- The conditions that support these characteristics in the workplace include strong, unambiguous norms, trust, teamwork, leadership, positive example, and opportunities to grow and advance.
- Excessive legal control and pressure undermine people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and thus their commitment to nondiscrimination norms.”
The most effective efforts, according to Bartlett, are the ones that encourage openness and empathy, which in turn encourage the internalization of anti-bias and anti-discrimination. In contrast, efforts that rely on external motivation and pressure to act a certain way, without any real change in beliefs, are likely to last only when there is external pressure.
Similarly, addressing the difference between “identity-blind” and “identity-conscious” systems is essential. Early DEI efforts considered “blind” systems fairer, operating under the assumption that conscious prejudice was the main problem and that making everyone meet the same standards, without regard for identity factors, was the solution. However, as our earlier example showed, that’s not always the best solution. Research has shown that identity-conscious systems (those that specifically take identity and related factors into account) are the ones that create meaningful changes.
Becoming Bias-Conscious and Its Effects
For this reason, more and more organizations are looking into the idea of becoming bias-conscious. Becoming more conscious of existing biases and differences and championing DEI (by noticing differences rather than trying to ignore them to erode unconscious bias) can lead to greater innovation and more freedom for individuals to be their whole selves. It can also be a boon for the overall institution since more diversity and a recognition of difference can help to avoid the pitfalls of homogenized, “standardized” thinking.
Ottsen takes this concept even further, to the idea of bias-conscious leadership—a skillset that leaders must continually and deliberately maintain through training an inclusive perspective.
“Bias-conscious leadership is not just a state where you are aware of your biases. It is rather a reflective leadership practice where knowledge of the psychological mechanisms behind bias forms the foundation for creating an inclusive work environment in which all employees contribute their skills and competencies in the best possible way.”
In higher education, you serve students (as well as staff and faculty) of all backgrounds, and inviting more perspectives into decision-making can lead to great success on every level and benchmark. This holds true for hiring leadership and team roles, and meeting enrollment goals. When individuals recognize an institution’s commitment to handling bias and becoming inclusive, they are more likely to feel that they, too, could feel at home there, increasing their likelihood to become a candidate, or eventually, an employee
As we wrap up, let’s consider four key takeaways from Ottsen’s research:
- “Putting diversity into play is not an afterthought and should be considered in all decision-making.
- Make sure that as a manager or leader, you regularly have contact with diverse groups.
- Without an inclusive mindset, there is a danger that organizations will end up where the strategy is diversity, but the practice is uniformity.
- Learn to recognize the tension among many perspectives, and then to use that friction to increase understanding of the many sides of the given matter.”
Bias is a reality of life—no one is truly immune. Instead of fruitlessly trying to eliminate it, we can become more aware of it, and use that awareness to our advantage as we work to build more inclusive institutions. Only when we’re willing to challenge our biases and do the work in thought and action can we achieve a more inclusive, equitable future where people feel they belong.
By Jacquelyn D. Elliott, Ed.D.
About the Author
As a Higher Education subject matter expert across multiple sectors to include Strategic Enrollment Management, Financial Aid, Institutional Advancement, Student and Academic Affairs, Jacqui brings to the table a unique perspective of understanding the institution’s needs for specialized talent and the candidate’s desire to propel a cause and witness success.
Jacqui has worked with more than 200 schools across the globe in a consulting capacity and has coached countless cabinet-level executives on strategy, job placement, and meeting enrollment, net tuition, and fundraising goals.
 Bielby, William T. “Minimizing Workplace Gender and Racial Bias.” Contemporary Sociology 29:1 (2000), 120-129.
 Lachmann, Suzanne. “How Conscious and Unconscious Bias Challenge Racism.” Psychology Today, 19 June 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/me-we/202106/how-conscious-and-unconscious-bias-challenge-racism.
 Ottsen, Christina Lundsgaard. Bias-Conscious Leadership: How diversity leads to better decision-making. Translated by Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov, 2022.
 Bartlett, Katharine T. “Making Good on Good Intentions: The Critical Role of Motivation in Reducing Implicit Workplace Discrimination.” Virginia Law Review 95:8 (Dec. 2009), 1893-1972.
 Bartlett, 2009.
 Bielby, 2000.
 Ottsen, 2022.
 Ottsen, 2022.