Unconscious Biases

The term “bias” (also “implicit bias” and “unconscious bias”) refers to the unconscious assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that human brains have about different groups. These learned mental short-cuts affect how we perceive and respond to people.

Some key features about unconscious biases:

  • Everyone has them
  • They can be activated within a fraction of a second
  • We can hold biases against our own group
  • We can hold biases that go against our stated beliefs
  • Biases are generally shared within social groups, though people also have biases favouring people who share their identities
  • Biases are persistent, but can be changed with attention and work

Unconscious biases prevent us from seeing fairly and accurately the information or the people in front of us. Much research shows that unconscious biases systematically disadvantage already disadvantaged people, and provide un-earned advantages to those already advantaged. As a result of these impacts, unconscious biases negatively affect our ability to identify and hire the best candidates.

At UVic, we are working to increase understanding of the actions and impacts of unconscious biases, and to establish processes and education that will reduce their impact within all stages of employment.

Training materials on unconscious bias

Online resources

Some studies on unconscious bias

The following research highlights some biases that influence perceptions and decisions in hiring.   

Ableism and disability avoidance

Dolan, V.L.B. (2021). ‘…but if you tell anyone, I’ll deny we ever met:’ the experiences of academics with invisible disabilities in the neoliberal university. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2021.1885075 

The study highlights a pervasive culture of ableism and disability avoidance. Participants discuss the often-negative impact of disability in their professional lives, which can be exacerbated by intersecting dimensions of differentness attached to their self-identities. 

Publication rates and resource allocation bias

Duch, J., et al. (2012). The Possible Role of Resource Requirements and Academic Career-Choice Risk on Gender Differences in Publication Rate and Impact. PLOS One, 7(12), e51332. https://arxiv.org/abs/1212.3320 

Lower publication rates of female faculty are correlated with the amount of research resources typically needed in the discipline, and thus may be explained by the lower level of institutional support historically received by females. As well, in disciplines where pursuing an academic position incurs greater career risk, female faculty tend to have a greater fraction of higher impact publications than males. 

Race and Indigeneity representation

Henry, F., Dua, E., Kobayashi, A., James, C. E., Li, P., Ramos, H. & Smith, M. S. (2017) Race, racialization and Indigeneity in Canadian universities. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(3), 300-314. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1260226 

Whether one examines representation in terms of numbers of racialized and Indigenous faculty members and their positioning within the system, their earned income as compared to white faculty, their daily life experiences within the university as workplace, or interactions with colleagues and students, racialized and Indigenous faculty and the disciplines or areas of their expertise are, on the whole, low in numbers and even lower in terms of power, prestige, and influence within the University.

Biases experienced by racialized faculty

Henry, F., Dua, E., Kobayashi, A., James, C. E., Li, P., Ramos, H. & Smith, M. S. (2017). The Equity Myth: Racialization and the Indigeneity at Canadian Universities. UBC Press. 

Explores a range of biases faced by racialized faculty, resulting in challenges being hired and in integrating with an institution once hired. When work is done to create a welcoming climate, the underrepresented perspectives and expertise of these faculty members can be integrated into the university (p. 160-164). 

Diversity bias

Hekman, D. R., Johnson, S. K., Foo, M. & Yang, W. (2017). Does Diversity-Valuing Behavior Result in Diminished Performance Ratings for Non-White and Female Leaders? Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 771–797. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2014.0538

Women and nonwhite executives who were reported as frequently engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors were rated much worse by their bosses, in terms of competence and performance ratings, than female and nonwhite counterparts who did not actively promote diversity.  

Letters of reference and gender bias

Madera, J.M., Hebl, M.R., Dial, H., Martin, R., & Valian, V. (2019). Raising Doubt in Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Gender Differences and Their Impact. Journal of Business and Psychology, 34(3), 287-303. https://search.library.uvic.ca/permalink/01VIC_INST/1ohem39/cdi_proquest_journals_2031164012

Both male and female recommenders use more doubt raisers in letters of recommendations for women compared to men and that the presence of certain types of doubt raisers in letters of recommendations results in negative outcomes for both genders. 

Graduate admissions bias

Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678-1712. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000022  and https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-15680-001?doi=1

Among 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions, when considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring, faculty were significantly more responsive to White males than all other categories of students, collectively, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions.  

Differential faculty workloads

O’Meara et al. (2017). Asked More Often: Gender Differences in Faculty Workload in Research Universities and the Work Interactions That Shape Them. American Educational Research Journal 54(6), 1154-1186. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831217716767

Women faculty spend more time on campus service, student advising, and teaching-related activities and men spend more time on research. Women received more new work requests than men and men and women received different kinds of work requests. 

Lab representation and gender

Sheltzer, J.M. & Smith, J.C. (2014). Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(28), 10107-10112. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1403334111

High-achieving faculty members who are male train 10–40% fewer women in their laboratories relative to the number of women trained by other investigators, likely limiting the number of female candidates who are most competitive for faculty job searches. 

Overqualification in employment

Statistics Canada. (2022). Overqualification rate, by groups designated as visible minorities and selected sociodemographic characteristics for the employed labour force population aged 15 years and over in private households, 2011 and 2016 [Data set]. https://doi.org/10.25318/4310007101-eng

Statistics Canada has shown that a higher percentage of all visible minority groups within BC are overqualified for the employed labour force (22.0%) compared to people who are not a visible minority (10.8%).

Research evaluation bias

Witteman, H.O., et al. (2019). Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency (2019). The Lancet, 393(10171), 531-540. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)32611-4/fulltext  and https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)32611-4

In Canadian Institutes of Health Research applications, gender gaps in grant funding are attributable to less favourable assessments of women as principal investigators, not of the quality of their proposed research.