Unconscious bias: Continuing the discussion

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales
I recently wrote a post, Unconscious bias: The importance of being Ernesto or how a Hispanic name influences your legislator, and as it went through my social networks, I received very interesting comments that I really want to share. I think this is such an important discussion, I decided to post some of those comments here – and my occasional responses. The comments are anonymous since I did not secure their permission to post them. I appreciate their insight and hope this discussion is broadened.
Commenter 1

Thanks for sharing this Isabel. I’m noticing that there appears to be a resurgence in the use of the terminology unconscious bias / training. I do however wonder whether what with increase challenges to all sorts of bias whether people have just got better at hiding / finding excuses for their biases. Is it really ‘unconscious bias’? We all have prejudices but some of us choose to educate ourselves out of them and not to act on them. Certainly, if someone brings a behaviour to your attention, further repetition cannot be deemed to be ‘unconscious’.

My response
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Commenter 1. I would caution only one detail. The point of the unconscious bias research is to, precisely, focus on how much our biases permeate our actions regardless of our upmost and earnest desires. That does not mean that efforts to counteract them are futile, but that they have to be undertaken almost continuously. I mentioned in that piece how painful it is to discover your own biases, and that’s not only your biases about “other” groups, but, ironically and sadly, against our own, because we adopt the societal biases, against our will. Counteracting them means real work. That’s why we can look at it with some hope of correcting them at the action level. Thanks so much, again, for your commentary. This is a very long and arduous work. Let’s keep at it…together.
Commenter 2
Great discussion! I like using unconscious bias as it is more acceptable (perhaps just semantics) and can reach out to individuals within an organisation. It does help make incremental changes as it starts with the individual however, it should not be used as a ‘shield’ to prove equality for the whole of the organisation. The organisation/institution has its own responsibility to not only promote equality but to evidence it. No matter how good the apples if the barrel is rotten, they are not going to last long!
My response
Couldn’t agree more, Commenter 2. Right on point and thanks for bringing the organizational angle to it. Organizations – of any sort – cannot have unconscious biases…actually, they cannot have biases of any kind. People have biases which reflect on their actions, those, in turn, make the organizations’ policies and actions effectively biased against – that is, having a deleterious effect on – groups and individuals. I believe the knowledge of unconscious bias also helps organizations and institutions because it can make their leaderships aware of not only their own biases, but of the problem as a whole, and they should be called to overcorrect and ensure that the policies are accounting for such historical and present discriminatory effects.
I am very much a stickler for exacting policies that create – actually, mandate – equality, because it cannot be left to individual transformation. Much to the contrary, as the policies that impulse equity in society take further hold and transform the landscape, our individual biases will subside – very slowly, for sure – as we see more people of all hues in all positions in society.
Commenter 2

Thanks Isabel. Totally agree that it cannot be left to individual transformation, there has to be a higher mandate, such as policies to provide assurance. In the UK public bodies have to demonstrate ‘due regard’ to equality in all policies by law. This helps but again you’re right, it will take some time as both public and private bodies/organisations realise the full benefit of having an engaged and diverse workforce.

Commenter 3 

Interesting discussion but my question would be how can organisations be challenged from conscious bias for all equality strands? How many NHS senior managers think it’s ok to recruit there family members?

Commenter 1 

A good point Commenter 3. But my question is, is that unconscious or blatant bias committed, perhaps, in the knowledge that no one dares challenge / whistle blow if they wish to keep their job! Unconscious bias does exist, but as Commenter 1 alluded to, he likes “using unconscious bias as it is more acceptable (perhaps just semantics)”. I fear that such ‘acceptable’ terminology can be mis-used to shield responsibility and / or appropriate action by senior managers. It reminds me of the “I didn’t mean it” or “That’s not what I meant” syndromes that I grew up with…what’s the difference or is that my own unconscious bias?

Commenter 3

Isabel, it has been a while since we connected. I just wanted to reach out and say I really appreciate the repost you made today about name bias. That bias also exists in medicine and health, and will do until somebody’s health record exists 100% in their own language as well. Working with a predominantly Hispanic population in Yuma, Arizona, it is so apparent how these biases manifest themselves in the healthcare economy to the detriment of the patient and their family.


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