Why Confronting Unconscious Bias is Key for an Inclusive Workplace

We are experiencing a collective call to action around addressing racism in the U.S. on a systemic level, causing many of us to also examine our own behavior and biases, and see where we can make changes on a personal level. 

To learn more about how to begin confronting the unconscious bias in our own lives and workplaces, we spoke with Terrence Underwood, Senior Director of Learning and Advisory Services at Catalyst. Catalyst, one of edX’s corporate partners, is a leading nonprofit organization that is dedicated to creating more inclusive workplaces. It has extensive experience advising and counseling major global companies on how to build high-performing, inclusive workplaces and cultures. On edX, Catalyst offers several courses including Unconscious Bias: From Awareness to Action

Why We All Experience Unconscious Bias

Terrence told us that even if you think you don’t have unconscious bias, you do. “At any given moment, our brain is managing around 11 million bits of information, but we can only consciously process 40 bits. Because of this phenomenon, we aren’t using the raw data we receive to make decisions; our decisions are based on the information we store and process about people. Therefore, we make assumptions and only see what we choose to see – this is also known as confirmation bias, which impacts our behaviors,” he said.

While this might seem surprising, we can all take steps to become aware of our biases and work to keep those in check, especially in the workplace. “Unconscious bias affects our lives and workplaces through the way we interact with each other. For people in marginalized groups, they could experience exclusion and covering. This creates hesitation when sharing aspects of their personal life or identity and doesn’t allow for them to be authentically themselves,” Terrence said. In Catalyst’s Unconscious Bias course, you learn to become aware of your biases and move towards action that leverages the full potential of your teams and colleagues.

Commonly Overlooked: Affinity Bias

One of the most commonly overlooked biases is affinity bias, according to Terrence: “This bias is also known as ‘like-likes-like’ which refers to our natural ability to associate or champion people similar to ourselves. An example would be promoting or hiring someone who identifies as the same gender, race, age, or educational background as yourself.”

Steps Toward Confronting Your Biases

We can never completely rid ourselves of unconscious biases, but by becoming aware of them, we can learn to check them. Terrence recommends “becoming more aware of your thoughts and behaviors to interrupt your own personal biases” and “demonstrating curiosity and practicing active listening to recognize different perspectives.” Accept that you will make mistakes, but by leaning into your humility and admitting that you are still learning, you can take steps towards actively fostering inclusion in your everyday and work conversations.