Oftentimes, unconscious discrimination happens because we draw conclusions that are not thoroughly thought out.
Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow that we have two decision-making systems in our brain. One is fast and intuitive, that is, we do not think through or analyze the decisions we make. This is the system we use in most everyday decisions. This system is effective and necessary. Imagine if we sat down and analyzed each time we decided whether to have juice or milk with breakfast, the world would quickly stagnate.
The second system is the analytical one, that is, we have a conscious relationship with the choices we make, and the alternatives are weighed against each other. For example, when you are choosing a new car to buy.
Problems arise if the first system is programmed with a "bias" or a biased expectation. The result is that we make assumptions about people without always identifying what we base our assumptions on.
Who would you choose if you needed help with a complicated Excel analysis? Julie, or Martin? According to many of the young women we have talked to, Martin is chosen more often than Julie. We rarely reflect on such choices, and we certainly don't think it has anything to do with gender. We may think that Martin is excellent at data crunching and will solve the task well.
If we want someone to make a "gorgeous" presentation or write a summary from a meeting, we might be more likely to choose Julie. In passing, we probably don't think much about it either, but we may have a suspicion that Julie is careful or good at esthetics. This is how unconscious bias enters the system.
The same action can be either deliberate or unconscious discrimination, depending on the intention of the sender. In the examples above, the intention has not been to provide developing tasks to Martin, and support tasks to Julie. It "just happened" without the sender thinking twice about it.
This is unconscious discrimination. However, there are managers who truly believe women are best suited as secretaries, and might choose Julie to deliberately emphasize a point.
Fortunately, this is a small minority. This is conscious discrimination. It is the intention behind the act, and not the act itself, that determines whether we discriminating conscionsiously or unconsciously.
The above examples are relatively common and mild, but we should not underestimate the effect of mild unconscious discrimination over time.
Each episode is not determining, but if it occurs weekly throughout a career it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Martin will eventually get better at complicated Excel analysis, and Kari's development will stagnate because she spends most of her time on supporting tasks.
The most important thing is to acknowledge that hidden biases exist, and create an openness and willingness to communicate and discuss these without being judged and ostracised. Unconscious bias can be tackled when the organizational policies and leadership enables a positive working environment, where employees feel pride in supporting others, and are rewarded for actively demonstrating a will to overcome such biases and acting to increase diversity in the workplace.
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