Understanding Unconscious Bias

At the recent UoB Athena SWAN Steering Group, a presentation was given by colleagues from University College London (UCL), where the Molecular Biology Department is one of only 8 Gold Award holders in the country. It highlighted how an awareness of the impact of unconscious bias across all aspects of the department’s work, has enabled them to create a more inclusive working environment that has enabled them to diversify their workforce based on:

FAIRNESS – equality of opportunity
EXCELLENCE – select the best
DIVERSITY – increased innovation

This a short description of unconscious bias taken from the Equality Challenge Unit website:
“Your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context can have an impact on your decisions and actions without you realising.

Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environmentand personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.

Impact of unconscious bias
Research has found that unconscious bias can heavily influence recruitment and selection decisions. Several experiments using CV shortlisting exercises have highlighted bias by gender and ethnicity. A study of science faculties in higher education institutions (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012) asked staff to review a number of applications. The applications reviewed were identical, apart from the gender of the name of the applicant.
Science faculties were more likely to:
*         rate male candidates as better qualified than female candidates
*         want to hire the male candidates rather than the female candidates
*         give the male candidate a higher starting salary than the female candidate
*         be willing to invest more in the development of the male candidate than the female candidate
Here, unconscious bias impacts not only on the recruitment decision, but the salary of the individual and the amount of development that is invested in their ongoing progression.”

An awareness of unconscious bias will start to help us generate some ‘quick wins’ in our Athena SWAN Bronze Award process. For example, UCL has introduced strategies such as the co-chairing of committees by both a man and woman who share the role, which creates positive role models. They have also instigated a process for selecting speakers for seminars whereby anyone nominating a speaker has to nominate both a man and a woman, so that seminars overall have a 50:50 balance of male/female speakers. An  appraisal checklist has been created for their SDR process, and promotion  is discussed at all SDRs with the baseline of an expectation of everyone going for promotion. If an individual is not applying for promotion, it is the SDR reviewer who has to give the rationale as to why this is not appropriate at that particular time.

Sometimes all it needs is for our traditional ways of working to be approached from a different perspective. I’d be interested in hearing about any ideas for quick wins that will enable us to create a more inclusive work environment which promotes positive role models.

The UoB’s HR department also announced at the meeting that it will shortly be incorporating unconscious bias training into all recruitment and selection process. The promotion process from Senior Lecturer to Principal Lecturer as well as to professorial level, is also under review in the university.


Equality Challenge Unit. (n.d.). Unconscious bias. [Online]. http://www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance-resources/employment-and-careers/staff-recruitment/unconscious-bias/: Equality Challenge Unit. Available at: http://www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance-resources/employment-and-careers/staff-recruitment/unconscious-bias/ [Accessed 14.7.17. 2017].

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J. & Handelsman, J. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (41), 16474-16479.